Same-sex marriage and abortion laws in Northern Ireland were liberalised on Monday in a landmark shift for the province aimed at bringing it into line with mainland Britain.
It was a shift made all the more controversial because it was initiated by lawmakers in London.
On Monday, there were demonstrations of celebration and defiance.
“Thousands of women from the North have abortions every year, outside the law in their bedrooms or in England,” said Goretti Horgan, a spokeswoman for the abortion rights group Alliance for Choice. “They will now be able to access normal health care.”
Northern Ireland’s abortion laws had been some of the most restrictive in the world – banned in almost all cases except when a woman’s life was at risk.
Women could be imprisoned not only for getting an abortion in the territory but for seeking one. Carers, too, could be criminally charged for giving advice on obtaining an abortion.
And so generations of women from Northern Ireland travelled elsewhere for abortions. In more recent times, they have illegally purchased pills over the internet to terminate pregnancies at home, without medical care.
But beginning Tuesday, all prosecutions will be dropped, including a high-profile case against a mother who bought abortion pills for her then 15-year-old daughter.
Free and legal abortion services are expected to be available in Northern Ireland by early next year. Until then, the United Kingdom will cover the expenses of anyone travelling for a procedure, and medical support will be provided to anyone needing it after terminating with pills.
The new legislation taking effect early Tuesday also paves the way for same-sex couples to marry starting in February.
At a news conference in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter, Shane Sweeney, of Love Equality, said he is looking forward to marrying his partner, Eoin McCabe.
“Today means the world to us,” Sweeney said. “We have not asked for more rights, but the same rights of everyone else.”
While campaigners have been active in Northern Ireland, and opinion polls suggest support for both measures, these changes are the direct result of an amendment passed in the British Parliament.
Since 1967, the rest of the United Kingdom has allowed abortions to be performed up to the 24th week of pregnancy. But that had never been extended to Northern Ireland.
Following a landslide May 2018 referendum to ease the Republic of Ireland’s constitutional restrictions on abortion, attention shifted to the rights of women in Northern Ireland, where restrictive abortion laws still applied.
The Conservative government in Westminster argued that abortion and same-sex marriage were issues for Northern Ireland’s devolved government to decide. But the Northern Ireland Assembly has not convened in nearly three years amid a stalemate between pro-British unionists and Irish nationalists.
Under building pressure, Parliament in July amended a Northern Ireland bill to decriminalise abortion, liberalise the present law and permit same-sex marriage in the region – if the regional government had not been restored by an October deadline.
On Monday, anti-abortion unionist politicians convened in the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Stormont chamber but were unsuccessful in an attempt to block the law at the last moment. The move was dismissed by Irish nationalist and other political parties as a “stunt”.
Bernadette Smyth, director of Precious Life, the largest anti-abortion group in Northern Ireland, said her organisation would now “up the ante” with campaigning and possible legal challenges to the new laws.
She said she believes that “abortion is murder”, and she characterised the law change as the “worst onslaught since the Troubles”, referring to the three decades of conflict in Northern Ireland that claimed more than 3,500 lives.
Former politician Dawn Purvis, an abortion rights advocate, said: “For the first time women in Northern Ireland women will be free to choose if, when and how many children they have, in the care of health care professionals.”
“That is all women have wanted for a long, long, long time,” she said. “Women died trying to get the vote; women died trying to access abortion care. That is not going to happen anymore.”+