At the stroke of midnight on Monday a historic moment for LGBTQ+ activists, feminists and progressives alike, took place in Northern Ireland. Laws allowing for same-sex marriage and abortion to be legal were passed, bringing Northern Ireland in line with the rest of the United Kingdom. But although these laws passed, it remains doubtful whether local prejudices in Northern Ireland against women who seek abortions and same-sex couples will suddenly disappear. The country still has a long way to go before people’s deep-rooted perceptions of the LGBTQ+ community and a woman’s right to choose change.
Before the new law passed, Northern Ireland was the only part of the United Kingdom that did not allow same-sex marriage. Laws in Northern Ireland also forbid abortion except in cases in which a mother’s life is at risk. A pregnant woman living in Northern Ireland did not have control over her own body to terminate a pregnancy even in cases of rape and incest. Nor did that right exist where there were mental health issues, financial reasons, or any other reason for that matter.
Doctors in Northern Ireland also were not allowed to counsel women on the available options for ending a pregnancy if there were complications. Women can face serious complications during a pregnancy, such as congenital heart defects, ectopic pregnancy, stillbirth, neonatal death and physical abnormalities. These women would not have had the choice to terminate their pregnancy, being forced to carry a potentially very sick baby to term even if it meant the child was likely to die soon after birth. The emotional burden that existed for so many women living in Northern Ireland was immense. This ban on abortion was upheld by the country’s conservative politicians and religious leaders.
So How did change finally come about, you ask?
It came due to the devolved government in Northern Ireland not sitting in Stormont (Parliament building in Northern Ireland) for over 1,000 days. Yes, just that.
Political power in Northern Ireland is unstable due to a lack of consensus between Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) on various issues. The political obligation established in the Good Friday Agreement states that both the nationalist Sinn Fein party and the DUP must work together and appoint a First Minister and Deputy First Minister who would lead the executive together. Northern Ireland has been governed without ministers for the last three years and has not been able to pass major legislation.
In July, Parliament voted in London to overhaul laws banning abortions and same-sex marriage if the devolved executive in Northern Ireland had not been restored by October 21. These measures were voted on in Parliament in order to keep the country running, even in the absence of government.
October 21st came and there was no change, so the laws passed automatically. Although anti-abortion members in the Democratic Unionist Party scrambled at the last minute to halt the same-sex marriage and abortion laws from passing, this proved too late. The DUP returned to the Stormont chamber for the first time in two and a half years to restore the government. But for this to happen, a new speaker would need to be in place before the Assembly could consider a legislative bill. For a new speaker to be elected there must be support from both the unionist and nationalist parties. The opposition parties, Sinn Fein, Alliance, the Greens and People Before Profit all boycotted the sitting of Parliament. Since they refused to sit, the DUP was unable to prevent same-sex marriage and abortion amendments from passing.
The government in Northern Ireland will assume responsibility for introducing new regulations to provide greater access to abortion and counselling for abortion in the region by next April. Until April, when the regulations are put in place, women will be offered free transport to access abortion services in England and will no longer be prosecuted for seeking abortion services. Same-sex marriage will become legal in Northern Ireland in January.
This error in policy has changed the country by putting into motion the legal framework needed for a new and progressive Northern Ireland. Women and LGBTQ+ people have been restricted for years, but now they arguably have a better chance at receiving justice and equality, as well as the opportunity to begin overturning opinion — even if this will take considerable time and effort.
The attempts of the DUP members, anti-abortion activists and religious leaders to stop the legislation from moving forward failed. Pro-choice and LGBTQ+ activists prevailed and women can now feel more safe and secure, knowing that they are protected by the law should they choose an abortion in Northern Ireland. And so, a blunder in Parliament has impacted the lives of many, changing them for the better.
However, despite the initial optimism following the passing of these two laws in Northern Ireland, prejudice in the region against same-sex couples and women that seek abortions will undoubtedly remain. Churches in Northern Ireland have already insisted that they will not marry same-sex couples. The Church of Ireland, Methodist Church of Ireland and Presbyterian Church in Ireland all stated that they will only celebrate marriages between a man and a woman. This statement will undoubtedly sustain deep-seated prejudices against LGBTQ+ people in the country, despite the new law allowing for same-sex couples to marry.
The same concerns surround women seeking abortions and the possible scrutiny and judgement they may receive at the hands of obstinate professionals. Though advising on termination options is now permitted to doctors, there is no guarantee that they will do this, or do it effectively and without admitting personal bias. Certain doctors may not give women all the available options and may even try and sway their opinion against terminating a pregnancy. Outside the danger of professional malpractice, women could still be vulnerable to societal judgement; starting with work colleagues, friends and family members all actively engaged in discouraging and shaming those women that face this difficult choice.
Although the passing of same-sex marriage and abortion laws in Northern Ireland is a progressive change in many ways, the country still has a long way to go before people’s attitudes become tolerant. Still, this is a definitive step forward — regardless of how it was achieved.