Northern Ireland’s abortion regime: Further analysis on 31 March 2020 regulations and time limits

During the debate in the Lords, the Government committed to bringing in regulations on 31 March 2020, but Minister (Lord Duncan of Springbank) made it clear that there would be no consultation on whether or not to implement this extreme abortion law, only how to implement it.

“I want to be clear: consultation would not be on the question of whether this should be done, but only on how CEDAW’s recommendations can be implemented in Northern Ireland.”

He later went on to say:

“To answer the question of how we would meet our requirements if we publicly consult on measures that would restrict access to abortion, any consultation will ​not be about restricting abortion.”

Over the remainder of the debate he was repeatedly asked by a number of Peers to specifically commit to whether there would be a time limit lower than 28-weeks. He gave a range of conflicting answers, none of which provided a commitment from the Government that any new primary legislation would be introduced to provide for a legal time limit lower than 28 weeks.

Even if the Government did decide, in regulations, to introduce a limit lower than 28-weeks gestation, this would not be part of primary legislation and would be decided by Westminster, rather than the people of Northern Ireland. 

These regulations could also be changed at any time by the Government in Westminster, once again bypassing the people of Northern Ireland, with no say on what that abortion time limit would be. This equally applies to any other regulations that may be brought in around other aspects of abortion provision.

Finally, it’s important to note that a situation where there is no abortion law whatsoever up until a specific time limit, is very different from the current situation in England and Wales. Abortions can only be performed on specific grounds and there are a number of legal safeguards provided by the Abortion Act which govern where abortions take place, the grounds they can take place on etc.

The proposed change in Northern Ireland would not provide any of these legal protections. Even if the time limit was matched across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, this is a fundamentally different and more radical abortion regime.