Unions on both sides of the border campaign for NI abortion rights

Emily Sheahan

Since the Eight Amendment was repealed in the Republic of Ireland at the beginning of this year, focus has shifted to Northern Ireland where abortion remains illegal. 

The movement to decriminalise abortion in Northern Ireland has been supported by the National Union of Students-Union of Students in Ireland (NUS-USI) and the Union of Students’ in Ireland (USI).

On International Women’s Day, NUS-USI and USI led a ‘Students for Choice’ march in Belfast.

“NUS-USI members have been involved in campaigns for abortion rights across the island of Ireland since at least the early 1990s,”said NUS-USI Women’s Officer Rachel Watters.

“The student movement can help drive the campaign for abortion rights by mobilising students and young people to demand that political representatives (whether in Westminster or Stormont) to reform our abortion law and end the decades-long denial of bodily autonomy,” said Watters.
Northern Ireland remains the only country in the UK where abortion is still illegal. The maximum sentence is life.
“A united student voice can have a tremendous impact on the fight for free, safe, legal and local abortion access in Northern Ireland: we have seen the power of student pro-choice campaigning in the campaign to repeal the 8th amendment, in the US before Roe v Wade and in the ongoing Argentinian campaign for abortion reform,” said Watters.
“I believe that we can achieve a similar mobilisation in Northern Ireland, although we face considerable barriers to abortion reform due to the absence of devolved government at Stormont and the Tory-DUP confidence and supply agreement at Westminster,” she continued.

The UN Human Rights body Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) has called the law in Northern Ireland a “grave and systematic” violation of Northern Irish women’s rights.

Abortion is permitted where there is serious threat to the mother’s life or her physical or mental health. Last year, 12 women were permitted abortions in Northern Ireland. 900 travelled to England and Wales.

“The new abortion services in the Republic of Ireland are quite inaccessible to students living in Northern Ireland because NI residents must pay up to €450 and travel across the border twice (because of the mandatory 3 day waiting period) to access abortion care in the south.

“This is not the free, safe and legal care that we campaigned for or that Minister Simon Harris promised to deliver. The student movement north and south must challenge this,” said Watters.

A bill was introduced on October 23rd, 2018, by Labour MP Diana Johnson among others. It passed the first stage of the House of Commonswit 208 votes in favour, 123 against. The bill would amend the current law relating to abortion in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland

It would “remove criminal liability in respect of abortion performed with the consent of the pregnant woman up to the twenty-fourth week of pregnancy.”

It would make termination of pregnacy after 24 weeks or a non-consentual termination illegal.

“The most important thing is to remember that repealing the 8th wasn’t the end of the campaign for abortion rights and that collectively, we still have a lot of work to do to ensure that everyone on the island of Ireland can exercise bodily autonomy,” said Watters.


Emily Sheahan 

Image Credit: Sabrine Donohoe