Historic moment in Northern Ireland: Abortion and same-sex marriage laws set to change at midnight


21 October 2019, 11:45


Northern Ireland’s laws on same-sex marriage and abortion are set to change at the stroke of midnight on Monday. The region is currently the only part of the United Kingdom that bans same-sex marriage and forbids abortion except when a mother’s life is at risk.

The bans had been upheld by the region’s block of conservative politicians until British MPs backed amendments that would compel the government to extend same-sex marriage to Northern Ireland and liberalise abortion if the country is unable to re-establish its own devolved government by October 21.

Earlier this month, the High Court in Belfast ruled that Northern Ireland’s abortion laws breached the UK’s human rights obligations.

“In 2014 when I needed an abortion and was denied one I swore I would add my voice to the campaign for abortion rights and to have achieved that is just incredible,” Ashleigh Topley, who was part of a Supreme Court challenge to the laws, said in a statement.

“This will never undo my experience but has given a purpose to my pain and I am relieved that no one will now have to go through what I did,” said Topley, who at 4-1/2 months pregnant was told that her baby would not survive but had to carry on against her wishes until she went into labour at 35 weeks and the baby girl’s heart stopped.

Other campaigners celebrated the law changes with the hashtag #TheNorthIsNow on Twitter.

Religious conservatives in both the Protestant and Catholic communities have opposed abortion rights. But pressure mounted to change the Victorian-era laws in recent years — especially after the Republic of Ireland voted overwhelmingly last year to repeal a similarly restrictive ban.

If a new devolved government is not formed by midnight, abortion will be decriminalised triggering a consultation on what the services should look like — due to be finalised and approved by March 2020.

“This is a bad law being implemented through a bad process leading to bad consequences for both women and unborn children,” said Dawn McAvoy from the anti-abortion Both Lives Matter group.

Regarding same-sex marriage, opinion has also changed but attempts to legalising it have been blocked by the socially conservative Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) using a special veto intended to prevent discrimination towards one community over another.

However, some of Northern Ireland’s assembly members will return to the chamber today for the first time in nearly three years in a last-ditch attempt to stop the reforms from passing.

Last week, Both Lives Matter said 31 members of the legislative assembly (MLAs) had signed a petition to force a recall to discuss a motion to put abortion rights back in the deciding hands of local politics.

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