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Abortion Laws in Ireland and North Ireland

January 03rd, 2020
topic:Abortion
by:Ama Lorenz
located in:Ireland, United Kingdom
tags:abortion, children's rights, Ireland, women's rights

The Offences against the Person Act of 1861 was applied across the whole of Ireland. However, Criminal and Civil law were devolved to Northern Ireland under the Government of Ireland Act of 1920. Subsequently, the Northern Irish parliament enacted the Criminal Justice Act of 1945.

This law allowed for the termination of a pregnancy if done in good faith to preserve the life of the mother. The law was made with insights from the Infant Life (Preservation) Act that was passed in 1929.

In 1972, the Northern Irish parliament was suspended and the area was administered from Westminster. This continued until devolution was effected in 1999. However, the power to make and manage criminal law was reserved by the parliament in Westminster until the year 2010. At all this time, cases involving abortion were acquitted if there was a serious effect on the mental and physical health of the mother.

Offences Against the Person Act 1861

Section 58 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 prohibited the administration of drugs or the use of surgical instruments to cause a miscarriage. It stated that any woman that unlawfully used any poison or instruments to procure an abortion in Ireland would be guilty of a felony. Upon conviction, the person would be sentenced to life in prison.

Section 59 of the act stated that whosoever shall procure or supply poison, a noxious thing or any other instrument with the full knowledge that the instrument or the poison is to be used with the intention of procuring an abortion whether the pregnant woman will be or not be having a child, such person will be guilty of a misdemeanour and will be liable for a prison sentence.

Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1945

The Criminal Justice Act of 1945 makes provisions for the preservation of human life. In sections 25 and 26 of the act, it prohibits the procurement of an abortion for a foetus that has a possibility of being born alive. It only provided an exception where a medical practitioner, acting in good faith would procure an abortion in Ireland to preserve the life of the mother.

The section enforces life imprisonment for any person that is convicted of child destruction in the form of procuring for an abortion for any pregnancy that has reached 28 weeks. In the same act, a person that is convicted of procuring or supplying drugs or instruments to procure an abortion in Ireland would also serve a prison sentence. Courts had the liberty of recommending shorter sentences for each of the above cases.

Northern Ireland Act of 2019

The Northern Ireland Parliament enacted the Executive Formation Act 2019 on 24th July 2019. This act extends the length for the restoration of the executive to 21st October 2019. The amendment provides that if the executive will not be restored by the deadline provided.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will be required to implement the United Nations CEDAW report on abortion that was made in 2018. The report was made from an inquiry concerning Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom that was made under Article 8 of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

There was a repeal of both sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act of 1861 in the law of Northern Ireland. The repeal would ensure that no investigation would be carried out, and no criminal proceedings would be continued or brought to the floor of the court as regards these two sections of the act. This effectively halted any criminal proceedings to individuals that may have contravened the above sections of the 1861 Act.

The amendment requires the Secretary of State to ensure that any other changes made to the laws of Northern Ireland would comply with the CEDAW report recommendations. This would include any laws that are made to regulate abortion in Ireland and the circumstances in which such abortions may take place. It also requires the Secretary of State to carry out his or her duties expeditiously to make provisions that are appropriate and in line with the repeals to the section 58 and 59 of the Act and thereby prohibit investigations under the said sections.

However, the protection of the life of a child that is capable of being born alive defined as an unborn child in a pregnancy where the mother has been pregnant for at least 28 weeks, will continue to be in force under the Criminal Justice Act of 1945 as explained above. The law reflected on the feotal viability from a medical perspective in the United Kingdom. It has not been repealed since it was passed in 1945.

The Effect of Repealing Sections 58 and 59

The repeal of this law decriminalises the following actions done to a pregnancy that has not reached 28 weeks of gestation.

  • A woman that administers drugs, instruments and other means intending to procure her own miscarriage
  • Any person that takes the actions stated above to cause a miscarriage of another party.
  • A person that supplies or procures drugs or instruments with the intention of causing miscarriage to any woman.

The law provides that abortion services will be made available to residents of Northern Ireland by 31 March 2020. However, pregnant women from this region may access legal abortion services at any other part of the UK without having to pay a coin or committing a crime. However, these cases will be handled on a case to case basis while the medical consultant takes note of the medical, physical or mental health of the women in question. It is also suggested that all the doctors that have qualified in the last eight years will have to do some training in this specific area.

This repeal gives women in Northern Ireland greater access to legal abortion services than most of the UK, which allow abortions up to 24 weeks of gestation. The repealed sections remain in force in England and Wales. Ireland is also expected to create buffer zones around hospital sites for people who may be protesting the move.

Article written by:
198719_2171697684668_4097646_n
Ama Lorenz
Editor-in-Chief, Editorial Board Member, Author
Ireland United Kingdom
Section 58 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 prohibited the administration of drugs or the use of surgical instruments to cause a miscarriage.
The Northern Ireland Parliament enacted the Executive Formation Act 2019 on 24th July 2019.
This repeal gives women in Northern Ireland greater access to legal abortion services than most of the UK, which allow abortions up to 24 weeks of gestation.