Campaigners hail change to Northern Ireland abortion law

21 October 2019, 16:03

MLPs from multiple Northern Irish parties stormed out of the chamber
MLPs from multiple Northern Irish parties stormed out of the chamber. Picture: PA

By Maddie Goodfellow

Campaigners have hailed an imminent change to abortion law in Northern Ireland after a last minute bid to halt a change to the law was blocked.

The Stormont Assembly sat today for the first time in two-and-a-half years, after it was recalled by MLA who wanted to protest the law change.

Anti-abortion MLAs made an attempt to block the new law by submitting a piece of private members' legislation, but outgoing speaker Robin Newton prevented the matter being considered.

They wanted to put through the law in a sitting in one day to halt a change to the law.

It means that abortion will be decriminalised in Northern Ireland at midnight on Monday.

Mr Newton said it was "not good practice" to take a piece of legislation through in one day.

"The Assembly cannot do any business until a speaker and deputy speakers are elected," he said.

Anti-abortion and pro-choice campaigners gathered at the front of Stormont on Monday morning to voice their contrasting views on the emotive issue.

MPs at Westminster successfully amended the Government bill in the summer to include measures to end the near-blanket prohibition on abortion and introduce same-sex marriage.

Once the 19th-century laws that criminalise abortion lapse at midnight, the Government will assume responsibility for introducing new regulations to provide greater access to terminations in the region by next April.

In the interim period, women will be offered free transport to access abortion services in England.

Under the Act, same-sex marriage will become legal in Northern Ireland in January, with the first wedding expected the following month.

The law changes regarding abortion and marriage could only have been stopped if the crisis-hit devolved executive was revived prior to the midnight deadline - a turn of events that was always extremely unlikely.

Pro-choice activists held aloft cardboard letters spelling out "decriminalised" in front of Parliament Buildings ahead of the sitting.

Sarah Ewart, who has become a vocal advocate for reform since having to travel to England for an abortion after receiving a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality, welcomed the law change.

"This law change will not fix what I had to go through but it will make it hopefully better for those who follow after me," she said.

Grainne Teggart from Amnesty International said the law change would pave the way for a more "compassionate" system.

"From midnight tonight history will be made, these oppressive laws that have policed our bodies and our healthcare will be brought to an end," she said.

"Finally our rights and our healthcare are being brought into the 21st century."

Anti-abortion activists held up placards stating that the decriminalisation was not in their name.

They also prayed beneath the landmark statue of Sir Edward Carson.

Activist Clive Johnston, from Strabane, warned of the consequences of decriminalisation.

"In today's world the most dangerous place to be is actually in the womb of a woman," he said.

"The Government is culpable in actually taking part in what amounts to the killing of babies in the womb."