Northern Ireland's Abortion Debate

A PPL news post by Rev. Justin Marple, PPL Board Member


While the mainstream media sound surprised at the public backlash against abortion legalization in Northern Ireland, the debate is revealing. In order to make it appear that the vast majority of the people of Northern Ireland supported legalizing abortion, those advocating for it relied on polls asking about circumstances often referred to as the hard cases. Now that they have been successful in getting the change they desired, they are attacking the anticipated tactics of their opponents like protesting at abortion clinics and promoting pregnancy care centers. Religious leaders who were working with politicians to stop the legislation from taking effect have responded to the failure of these efforts with statements expressing their sadness at the new state of affairs. Many seeking to protect the lives of mothers and their preborn babies are signing petitions and are speaking out on social media. The British Parliament has until April to create the regulatory framework for abortion services in Northern Ireland.


Amnesty International UK, part of a global movement once known for advocacy for political prisoners and efforts to save their lives, campaigned for the legalization of abortion in Northern Ireland. Aside from their rhetoric that abortion is a human right, their main argument was that 7 in 10 people agree that the laws needed change. They are referring to a poll that they commissioned, which found that 69% of people said abortion access should be made available in cases of rape; 68% said the same for cases of incest; and 60% said the same for cases where the preborn child has a fatal abnormality. The study itself shows no significant difference in these answers based on social class or gender but support for abortion generally increases with age; the greatest number of those who said that it should not be available in each of these cases are in the 16-24 age bracket. Protestants were more likely to support abortion in these situations than Roman Catholics.


Northern Ireland's Roman Catholic bishops issued a statement noting, “All explicit protection for the unborn child up to 28 weeks of pregnancy was removed in Northern Ireland, leading to potentially one of the most liberal and unregulated abortion regimes in the world. This is a tragic day for the unborn children who will now never bless our world with their unique and precious lives. It is also a sad day for our local democracy.” The statement also says, “The unavoidable truth is that our locally elected representatives had the time and the power to prevent this draconian Westminster abortion legislation being introduced over the heads of local citizens but chose not to do so. It is the duty of citizens to hold their elected representatives accountable for the decisions they have made.”


The Irish Times quoted Dr. William Henry, the moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, expressing disappointment on behalf of his mainline denomination. Rev. Sam McGuffin of the Methodist Church in Ireland made similar comments. These Protestant leaders had been working together with the Roman Catholic bishops to try and prevent this from becoming law.


The New York Times says, “Activists who favor legalizing abortion now worry that the decriminalization will embolden the anti-abortion movement and propel them to use the same aggressive tactics they have employed in the Republic of Ireland—opening fake abortion clinics and help lines designed to obstruct abortions.” I might note that pregnancy centers in the U.S. are familiar with similar smears.


The probable justification for “buffer zones” created by the new law is that pro-life activists held protests when an abortion clinic opened in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 2012. The New York Times quotes the clinic director saying, “They blocked the entrance. They stood in front of them. They tried to lure them to their own place down the street.” That clinic shut down in 2017.


Milly Cunningham hosts women seeking abortions from her native Northern Ireland in her London, England, home. She made the journey herself at age 19 to procure an abortion and now she helps others who want the same freedom—if I may use the “human rights” language often employed in the British debate. The New York Times quotes her saying, “They [pro-life organizations] receive all their funding and training from the U.S., so we are expecting quite a strong response from them, which can be quite scary, especially when you are pregnant and vulnerable.” Perhaps if it were purely an opinion piece they would have compared what she is doing to the underground railroad.


It is worth noting that abortion is only legal in the Republic of Ireland for the first 12 weeks. Thus there are concerns among pro-life advocates that people will begin to come from Ireland to Northern Ireland to seek an abortion.


A petition calling for a referendum on the matter is currently seeking signatures. At the time of writing this, there were 8,382 signatures. At 10,000 signatures the government will respond to the petition and at 100,000 signatures the petition will be considered by Parliament.


Despite that it calls for the restoration of the assembly before October 21st, some 33,360 people and counting have signed a petition on change.org entitled, “Stop radical abortion change being imposed on the Northern Irish people.” The petition mentions that the legislation, “Removes the current effective protection against coercive abortion, including the practice of secretly slipping abortion pills into drinks.”


A doctor in Northern Ireland also collected 911 signatures of health care professionals who refuse to participate in abortions. There are concerns that the government may not protect their consciences. Government guidelines say that they should raise their reservations about participating with their employer.


If you are interested in knowing more, those campaigning against the new law on Twitter are using the hashtag #bothlivesmatter.

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