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Repeal Of Abortion Ban In Ireland Sets Off Calls For Change In Northern Ireland

Jun 4, 2018
Originally published on June 4, 2018 8:39 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The recent vote in Ireland to repeal its abortion ban is setting off calls for change in neighboring Northern Ireland, which still has strict abortion laws that date to Victorian times. It would be up to the U.K. government to push through abortion reforms in British-ruled Northern Ireland. A debate is set for Parliament tomorrow, as NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Abortion rights protests have ramped up in Northern Ireland over the last week, like this demonstration in a Belfast courthouse plaza.

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UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) No more buses, trains or flights. We demand abortion rights.

ELLIOTT: Northern Ireland is the only place in the U.K. where abortion is still prohibited, even in cases of rape and incest or when a fetus is not expected to live. So hundreds of women travel to England to obtain the procedure in any given year or risk prosecution by using illegal pills that induce a miscarriage. At this protest, Belfast activist Eleanor Crossey Malone and others swallow the abortion pills in a symbolic challenge of the law.

ELEANOR CROSSEY MALONE: I've taken this in defiance of the extremely outdated, medieval anti-choice laws that exist in Northern Ireland.

ELLIOTT: Northern Ireland remains under a more than 150-year-old law that criminalizes abortion except in cases where the mother's life is threatened. Women in England and Wales were exempted from that in 1967. Now the vote in the Republic of Ireland has emboldened abortion rights activists to fight to change the law here, too. It's also been a wakeup call for anti-abortion groups in the north. Bernadette Smith is director of Precious Life.

BERNADETTE SMITH: Obviously that is causing shock waves. We didn't expect the people of Ireland to vote in such large numbers to change the law. So that is concerning.

ELLIOTT: Smith says her group is organizing to fight any move in Parliament to change the law. Northern Ireland has been without a functioning regional government for a year and a half, as parties struggle to share power. So now there's mounting pressure on the national government of Prime Minister Theresa May to decriminalize abortion in Northern Ireland. But the politics make it tricky. The socially conservative Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland is against liberalizing abortion laws and May's minority government is dependent on the support of DUP lawmakers in parliament.

On the other side, the nationalist party, Sinn Fein, favors liberalizing abortion laws. Party whip Caral Ni Chuilin says the issue only exposes women's lack of rights in the north.

CARAL NI CHUILIN: We don't have the same rights as our relatives who live in another jurisdiction. That means that women in the north are going to face additional discrimination.

ELLIOTT: But Ni Chuilin, who supports a unified Ireland, says this is not a matter for Theresa May and the British Parliament.

NI CHUILIN: We need Irish laws for Irish women. And, I mean, that is the bottom line.

ELLIOTT: The Irish abortion referendum has people talking all over Northern Ireland.

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ELLIOTT: The city of Derry is along the border with Ireland. On a breezy afternoon near the River Foyle, an elderly couple, Norman and Evelyn Nesbitt from Enniskillen, find themselves with opposing views.

NORMAN NESBITT: I think that a woman has a right to see to the needs of her own body in certain circumstances. That's my opinion as a man. Now you can get my wife's opinion.

EVELYN NESBITT: You have to think not only of the mother. But you have to think, they're killing a wee baby. They're killing a wee baby in the womb, you know?

ELLIOTT: And to her, she says, that's criminal. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Northern Ireland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.