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Abortion set to be decriminalised in Northern Ireland after historic Lords vote

BMJ 2019; 366 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.l4773 (Published 19 July 2019) Cite this as: BMJ 2019;366:l4773
  1. Ingrid Torjesen
  1. London, UK

The House of Lords has voted overwhelmingly to decriminalise abortion in Northern Ireland in the absence of a functioning Northern Ireland Executive.1

In an historic vote last night, the house backed last week’s decision by MPs that abortion in Northern Ireland should be decriminalised unless Stormont returns by October.

Peers voted 182 to 37 to pass the changes in a free vote.

Both the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) and the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare (FSRH) applauded the decision.

Lesley Regan, president of RCOG, said: “This is a truly historic day for women’s rights in Northern Ireland—a country that has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world —and will pave the way toward decriminalisation of abortion. The UK has finally tackled the historic wrong that has deprived the women and girls of Northern Ireland access to safe compassionate healthcare.”

She added: “It is now essential that the ambitions of this bill are implemented so healthcare professionals can provide abortion services without any fear of prosecution.”

Asha Kasliwal, president of FSRH, said, “There is evidence that the law in Northern Ireland conflicts with doctors’ duty of care and confidentiality towards their patients. Healthcare professionals fear criminal sanctions, meaning that care is sub-optimal and women may be put at risk.”

She added: “It is imperative that the new amendments are implemented without delay.”

Decriminalising abortion will require repealing the sections of the Offences Against the Person Act that make abortion a criminal offence and putting in place a new regime. Northern Ireland Office minister Lord Duncan told the House of Lords that this will require a consultation of up to 12 weeks, emphasising “that the substantive point will be how women will obtain access to abortion and not whether they should be able to do so.”

“I want to be absolutely clear: consultation would not be on the question of whether this should be done but only on how the recommendations of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women can be implemented in Northern Ireland,” he said.

Lords also voted to allow same sex marriage from January 2020 in the absence of a functioning Northern Ireland Executive.

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