Fifty Years Behind: The Fight for Abortion Rights in Northern Ireland

The 1967 Abortion Act was passed by Westminster half a century ago. Ann Orr looks at the context of the 1967 Act, why it was never extended to Northern Ireland (NI) and outlines how abortion rights can be won in NI.

The 1967 Abortion Act was passed in the context of an upswing of movements for rights and equality on an international scale. In the USA, the movements for Black liberation, women’s rights and the sexual revolution were gaining momentum. In France, the student movement linked with the organised working class, leading to a political crisis that came close to revolutionary change in 1968. This was a continuation of social shifts which began in the early 1900s across Europe. A significant factor was the entry of women into the workforce during both World Wars, but also on a more long-term basis after WWII.

This not only deepened the basis for solidarity between women and ways to share information on ending unwanted pregnancies but also raised the expectations of women[1]. In Britain, debates on birth control grew in the 1920s and 1930s, although it was 1967 before restrictions based on age and marital status were lifted, allowing information on birth control to be given to anyone[2]. Contraceptives, however, were expensive and thus inaccessible to working-class women, highlighting the class nature of the abortion issue.

Britain was affected by the international trends and advances in women’s and gay rights were won in the 1960s. In Northern Ireland (NI), the civil rights movement was also inspired by international events. In its initial phase, it had the potential to unite working class people across the sectarian divide in a struggle for jobs, homes and decent living standards. Unfortunately, while globally movements were continuing to grow, the onset of the Troubles led to politics in NI becoming entrenched in sectarianism, pushing other issues to the sidelines. Women here did not gain from reforms won in Britain and abortion, although hidden at times, remained a key issue, especially for working class women who lack the financial means to easily travel elsewhere for abortions.

 “This Act does not extend to Northern Ireland.” (Section 7(3) Abortion Act 1967)

 When the Abortion Act was passed, it did not extend to NI. At the time, the NI Parliament was in place and continued to operate until direct rule was implemented in 1972 in response to the Troubles[3]. None of the NI Parliament parties wanted to extend the 1967 Act. The 1861 Offences Against the Person Act and Criminal Justice (NI) Act 1945 outlaw abortions except in very limited circumstances and continue to form the basis of abortion law here. In 2008, Labour’s Dianne Abbott attempted to extend the 1967 Act to NI. Her amendment was never discussed – a possibly deliberate move[4] using a parliamentary tactic previously deployed to avoid bills on votes for women[5] and abortion[6]. Nevertheless, Abbott’s amendment caused uproar among anti-choice groups. The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children claimed that the leaders of all four major political parties in NI (DUP, Sinn Féin, UUP and SDLP) had written to all MPs “calling on them to allow the issue of abortion law to be decided by the Province’s devolved government”[7].

Today, none of the main parties in NI support the extension of the 1967 Abortion Act. The DUP, SDLP and most UUP representatives also oppose even limited reforms, as shown by various votes:

  • February 1984: The NI Assembly passes the motion “That this assembly opposes the extension of the Abortion Act 1967 or like legislation to NI”[8].
  • June 2000: Jim Wells’ (DUP) motion to oppose the extension of the 1967 Abortion Act to NI is passed[9].
  • February 2016: defeat of amendment to Justice Bill which would have allowed abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality defeated by 59 votes to 40[10].


Parties v public opinion

In addition to voting records, comments by various politicians demonstrate that their backward attitudes. The DUP’s Emma Little-Pengelly, speaking in the Assembly in February 2016, reiterated that “The DUP opposes the extension of the 1967 Act to Northern Ireland.” Caitríona Ruane then stated the same position on behalf of Sinn Féin. This was followed by the SDLP’s Dolores Kelly, who described her party as “pro-life”[11] (read anti-choice). None of the main parties support a woman’s right to choose, including Sinn Féin who, since 2015, think abortion should be permitted only in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, when the life of the woman is in danger or if the pregnancy is as a result of sexual crime. These positions, or allowing members free votes based on ‘personal conscience’ as the UUP and Alliance do, are not good enough.

The 2017 NI General Election study found that 41% agree with the statement that “Abortion should be made legal in NI” with only 29% opposed[12]. The Millward Brown poll conducted in 2016 found 58% supported the decriminalisation of abortion by “removing the penalty for women who have abortions in NI”[13] while 59% agree with decriminalisation by removing penalties for medical staff[14]. This disconnect between politicians and public opinion is not new. In 1994, the Independent on Sunday reported a poll which found that 79% of respondents favoured abortion “to maintain the mental or physical health of the woman”. In the same poll, over a third supported legalisation of abortion in cases were the woman did not want another child or because of extreme poverty[15]. To understand how this disconnect can continue while the same parties receive electoral support requires acknowledgement of the fact that voting in NI is generally not based on party policies. It is more aptly described as a sectarian headcount, as people feel they must ‘vote for our side to keep the other side out’.

What next?

The 1967 Act is far from perfect; it does not decriminalise abortion but only permits it in certain circumstances under medical supervision and with the consent of two doctors, although in practise it has made abortion widely available in Britain. However, socialists should support and call for the immediate extension of this Act to NI. This would not mark the end of campaigning; the battle would likely shift to the issues of access. However, the 1967 Act would be an important step towards achieving free and legal abortion, easily accessible on the NHS in NI. It would also provide an immediate and significant reduction of the financial, emotional and physical burden faced by pregnant people here.

In March 2017, a motion to bring a bill to revoke parts of the 1861 Act, which continue to criminalise abortion across the UK, was brought to Westminster by Labour’s Diana Johnson. It passed the first stage although all NI MPs present voted against the motion (8 DUP; 2 SDLP; 1 UUP)[16]. The bill’s second reading was due in May 2017 but it fell when the general election was called[17]. There are growing demands for such a bill to be brought again. Socialists in NI should work together with activists across England, Scotland and Wales to support such a move and to ensure such a change is extended to NI. The possibility of a future Corbyn-led government also offers opportunities. Campaigning should aim to put pressure on Corbyn through the trade union movement and Labour branches to extend the 1967 Act to NI.

Theresa May already had to give concessions by scrapping fees for women travelling from NI to have an abortion in England and Wales. This was done to avoid a vote which she would likely have lost and illustrates the weakness of this Tory government. The DUP would find it difficult to continue their support for the government if moves were made to change abortions laws here. Pressure must simultaneously be applied to the DUP but also all other main parties here. Should the Assembly be restored, power to extend 1967 or make any changes to the 1861 Act will lie with parties in Stormont. The majority vote for marriage equality, won following mass demonstrations, shows that people power can force politicians to change their positions on these questions. Even the DUP are not impervious to pressure, reflected in the sacking of Jim Wells following uproar against his homophobic comments. The majority of their voters do not support their reactionary social agenda. While the DUP will not change their position on marriage equality or abortion, they can be forced to stop abusing the petition of concern to block progress.

By Ann Orr

[1] Orr, Judith (2017) Abortion wards: the fight for reproductive rights. Bristol: Policy Press.

[2] Brooke, S. (2011) Sexual politics: sexuality, family planning and the British Left from the 1880s to the present day. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[3] [accessed 17/10/17].

[4] [accessed 17/10/17].

[5] Pankhurst, S. (2015) The Suffragette: the history of the women’s militant suffrage movement. New York: Dover Publications.

[6] Brooke, S. (2011) Sexual politics: sexuality, family planning and the British Left from the 1880s to the Present Day. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[7] SPUC [accessed 17/10/17].

[8] Lee, E. (1998) Abortion Law and politics today. (ed) Basingstoke: Macmillan.

[9] NI Assembly (2000) Report 20 June 2000 available from: [accessed 21/10/17].

[10] NI Assembly Official Report (2016) Wednesday 10 February available from: [accessed 21/10/17].

[11] NI Assembly Official Report (2016) Wednesday 10 February available from: [accessed 21/10/17].

[12] Tonge, J. (2017) NI General election survey 25 July 2017 available from: [accessed 21/10/17].

[13] Millward Brown (2016) Amnesty International – abortion research. p.9.

[14] ibid. p.10.

[15] Malik, K. (1994) ‘It’s one thing that unites us’ Independent on Sunday. 13 November 1994, p.24.

[16] Hansard Parliamentary Report 13 March 2017. Available from: [accessed 21/10/17].

[17] Parliament Website available from: [accessed 21/10/17].

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