The law as it stands

Sections 58 and 59 of the 1861 Offences against the Persons Act (a law which predates the invention of the lightbulb), is the law which still governs abortion in Northern Ireland and makes it illegal not only to have an abortion but also to assist anyone in procuring one. This is punishable by up to life imprisonment.

Abortion has not been decriminalised in England and Wales, the 1967 Abortion Act merely created a loophole which allows abortions to take place with approval from two doctors. The use of abortion pills at home remains illegal in England.

The Northern Ireland Public Prosecution Service has initiated criminal proceedings under sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act for unlawful procurement of abortion and abortifacient medications in a minimum of three separate cases since 2016. An April 2016 case resulted in a suspended sentence of 3 months’ imprisonment, and in January 2017 a couple received formal cautions for attempting to procure an abortion with Mifepristone and Misoprostol. There is an ongoing prosecution against a mother who procured abortifacient medications for her teenage daughter.

In early 2017 the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) implemented a crackdown on the procurement of Mifepristone and Misoprostol to induce abortion. These medications appear on the World Health Organisation’s list of essential medicines and are already used in NI hospitals for miscarriage management and the very limited number of lawful medical abortions. However, Mifepristone and Misoprostol are regarded as ‘poison’ under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act for the purpose of criminalising abortion in Northern Ireland.

In 2013 the Northern Ireland Department of Health issued draft guidelines on medical termination of pregnancy which emphasised that medical professionals will be prosecuted if they perform abortions outside the law. These guidelines have had a chilling effect on medical professionals within the Northern Ireland NHS: the number of abortions performed on the Northern Ireland NHS fell from 51 in 2012/13 to 13 in 2016/17.