In June, conservatives in the Northern Ireland Assembly successfully upheld the exclusion of Northern Ireland from the 1967 Abortion Act, which legalized abortion throughout the rest of the United Kingdom. The assembly debate was largely symbolic, because Britain effectively governs Northern Ireland and could have made abortion legal there but hasn’t.
Many say that the more than 30-year conflict with England, known as “the Troubles,” has allowed Northern Irish politicians to ignore abortion and other women’s issues by claiming that they detract from the “bread-and-butter” issue of the Troubles. The result is that Northern Ireland simply exports the problem back to England. At least 2,000 Northern Irish women travel there every year to have abortions.
Despite the outcome of the assembly debate, several politicians unexpectedly spoke in favor of abortion rights, reflecting what Goretti Horgan, spokesperson for the advocacy group Alliance for Choice, describes as the public’s “real mood for change.”
Egged on by the refusal of British and Northern Irish politicians to deal with the law, Alliance for Choice has brought a class-action suit against the British government on behalf of women of childbearing age. The suit, which will be heard before the High Court in Belfast sometime after October 1, 2000, will determine whether the British government is in breach of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Alliance for Choice expects to prove that the exclusion of Northern Ireland from the abortion law is hypocritical, dangerous, confusing, and a breach of universal human rights standards.