Abortion Rights and Marriage Equality Arrive in Northern Ireland

In the early hours of Monday, October 21, thousands of women and members of the LGBT community woke to the news that abortion and same-sex marriage had at last been legalised in Northern Ireland. 

This comes after a vote in Westminster took place in July to legalise abortion and same-sex marriage in the six counties if the government of Stormont did not return by October 21. As a result of this deadline being missed by the parties in power, these new laws were passed and put into place at midnight on Sunday. 

Nearly three years ago, the government of Stormont collapsed after a row between the shared power parties, Sinn Féin and the DUP. A number of government members returned to parliament on Monday to show their opposition to the new laws being put in place, however this makes no change to the legislation being brought in as it has not resulted in government resolving their issues. 

For decades, the women of Northern Ireland have fought to obtain abortion rights. The Abortion Act 1967 allowed terminations of pregnancy in Scotland, England and Wales, but the legislation never applied to Northern Ireland. 

The only exceptions to this were cases where the mother’s life was at risk or if there was a risk of permanent damage to her mental or physical health. Since sections 58 and 59 of the Offences against the Person Act 1861 have been repealed, it will no longer be a criminal offence for women in the North to obtain an abortion. 

This means that by March 31, 2020, Northern Ireland will have regulated free, legal and local abortion services available for women. 

DCU journalism student and Her Campus DCU deputy editor Roisin Maguire, who lives in Monaghan and works in Northern Ireland said “it’s a massive step in history for Northern Irish people.” 

“The fact that a woman can spend 14 years in prison for having an abortion is ridiculous when murderers spend less time in prison,” she continued. 

The change to same-sex marriage legislation also means that by February 14, 2020 - Valentine’s Day - people of the same-sex can legally get married. 

Laws were passed for same-sex marriage in England, Scotland and Wales in 2014, but were rejected by Stormont. The vote to bring in gay marriage in 2014 was rejected by 51 votes to 43 and was the third time the proposal was rejected in 18 months. The reason for this being mainly religious, with letters from the Catholic Church being issued around the time of proposals in 2014.  

Similar to the campaigns for abortion laws, same-sex marriage was widely advocated for and brought a huge amount of attention in recent years.  

Maguire said that “people are now also legally allowed to love who they want,” and referred to the rejection to law proposals to same-sex marriage years ago as similar to “living in the 18th century.” 

Same-sex couples must give 28 days’ notice before their marriage when the legislation is enacted. Opposite-sex couples must comply with the same rules. Civil partnerships were legalised in Northern Ireland in 2005 and almost every year since then, 100 people have entered civil partnerships. 

But now same-sex couples can legally be recognised as a married couple in the North for the first time. 

This change in legislation represents a huge modern step in the right direction for equality for both the LGBT community and women alike. For years, both demographics have been deprived of equal rights and privileges that are everyday norms for other countries. 

Especially during such a difficult time with Brexit talks and worries regarding safety and security, the new laws are a positive change that will undoubtedly boost the morale of people facing an uncertain future.