Same-Sex Marriage, Abortion Decriminalised in Northern Ireland

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Women’s rights activists are rejoicing after Northern Ireland decriminalised abortion and legalised same-sex marriage on Tuesday.


Until the repeal of sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 (which criminalises abortion), termination of pregnancy in Northern Ireland was only permitted if it posed a significant risk to a woman’s life or a danger of serious permanent damage to her mental and physical health.

The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 provides that the government must adhere to the recommendations of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

The committee published a report in 2018 which stated that women should be legally permitted to undergo termination of pregnancy if there is a threat to their mental or physical health; as well as in cases of incest or rape, and where there is severe foetal impairment. The report did, however, state that the latter concern should not “perpetuate stereotypes” towards people with disabilities.

The report also mentioned that both financial and social support should be offered to women who decide to continue with such pregnancies.

Further recommendations in the report were the provision of quality abortion and post-abortion care “in all public health facilities”, as well as prioritising an amendment to the school curriculum which would focus on scientifically accurate and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health.

The deadline for the Northern Irish government to draft regulations for providing termination services is the 31st of March, 2020.

Same-Sex Marriage

England, Wales, and Scotland have allowed same-sex marriages since 2014, however they had not yet been legalised in Northern Ireland.

In November 2015, MPs voted on the issue in the devolved assembly, which resulted in Northern Irish parliament having for the first time a majority in favour of same-sex marriage.

However, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) vetoed this law change by using the Petition of Concern – a petition that must have 30 signatures to succeed and works to ensure that the introduction of legislation is only done so with cross-community support. It has been used over 100 times since 2011.

Northern Ireland’s first same-sex weddings are expected to be held around Valentine’s Day, 2020, given that regulations should be in force by 13th January, and couples must register their intention to marry 28 days prior to doing so.

Catholic bishops in Northern Ireland have stated that they are concerned for unborn children and the redefinition of marriage, however, local civil liberties groups have said that they’re ecstatic as it’s another small step for the LGBTQIA+ community.

Phoebe Egoroff

Founder and of Jurist International, a website focusing on the latest developments in international human rights and criminal law.

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