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Abortion in Northern Ireland – A ‘Religious’ Problem?

Date:01 June 2018
Author:Januschka Schmidt
Abortion law protester in Ireland
Abortion law protester in Ireland

Is membership of a ‘religious’ community a good predictor of one’s views on abortion? In light of last week’s referendum on abortion in the Republic of Ireland,  Januschka Schmidt  reflects on the situation north of the border, where official church teaching and local attitudes appear increasingly out of step.

On May 25th, two thirds of the citizens of the Republic of Ireland voted to remove a constitutional ban on abortion. While this move has been celebrated as a victory for the pro-choice movement in the Republic, it is also important to consider the situation in Northern Ireland, where abortion laws remain highly restrictive.

While the Abortion Act 1967 regulates access to abortion in Great Britain, it does not extend to Northern Ireland. As a result, more than 1000 women a year travel to England to undergo a pregnancy termination. Until recently, this was a service for which they had to pay themselves. In June 2017, as a result of an initiative by Labour MP Stella Creasy, the British government decided to allow women from Northern Ireland to receive an abortion in Great Britain free of charge(except travel expenses). The Government Equalities Office provides a fund for women from Northern Ireland. More than 100 MPs across the House of Commons signed Creasy’s amendment, insisting that all women in the United Kingdom were entitled to proper health care. However, not everyone supported her initiative. Pro-life activists criticized the initiative on the basis of the concept of fetal personhood, arguing that abortion was akin to murder.

Only two years prior, in November 2015, abortion had made the headlines as a human rights issue. A number of individuals and organisations went to Belfast’s High Court to argue that the prohibition on abortion was a violation of women’s rights. In an historic ruling, Mr Justice Horner agreed. This judgement implied that Northern Ireland’s abortion laws stand in conflict with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, particularly article 2. Horner’s ruling suggested that women who are victims of rape and incest, as well those carrying foetuses suffering from fatal fetal abnormalities, should be able to terminate their pregnancies in local hospitals. However, the two most prominent Christian denominations in Northern Ireland, the Catholic Church and the Presbyterian Church, argued against the ruling. As a result, Northern Ireland’s Attorney General appealed against the judgment in 2016.

In Northern Ireland, abortion is prohibited under the Offence Against the Person Act (1861). Women who terminate a pregnancy are criminalised, as are those who perform them. In recent years, exceptions have been made only for women whose life and mental health are seriously threatened by continuing the pregnancy. As mentioned above, women from Northern Ireland currently have to travel to the British mainland in order to make use of the 1967 Abortion Act, and only as of June 2017 has the British government borne the costs of the procedure. As a consequence, activists argue that access to abortion in Northern Ireland is restricted to the wealthy, who are able to afford the travel and accommodation expenses that a trip to England involves.

After a pregnancy termination, women in Northern Ireland often face stigmatization. Kumar and colleagues identify the root causes of abortion stigma to be conservative values, including narrow gender roles, intent to control female sexuality, and compulsory motherhood (Kumar, Hessini, & Mitchell, 2009). As a result, women may engage in stigma management strategies. For example, these women are often extremely secretive about having had a termination, or they may deny having had one altogether. Additionally, some even become powerful pro-life activists, condemning other women who seek to have or have already had an abortion.

Religiosity is often offered as a primary reason for abortion stigma. Societal discourse surrounding pregnancy termination often revolves around questions of personhood: what constitutes a human being? When does life begin? These views may be influenced by one’s worldview – including one’s religious beliefs. Moral conservatism is often linked to religiosity as an explanation for conservative ideas about women’s rights and gender roles (see, for example, recent work by ArisiThomson, and others). This argumentation can create the impression that whether someone is liberal or conservative concerning abortion depends on the person’s ‘faith’. Thus, the idea of a religious-conservative vs. secular-liberal dichotomy is created. Within this binary, someone is either religious – and, therefore, conservative and anti-abortion – or someone is secular, thus liberal and pro-abortion.

To examine whether religiosity and anti-abortion attitudes are connected, ‘religiosity’ must first be measured. While efforts to define religion are theoretically and practically fraught, one way to approach the issue is to look at the statements of representatives of denominations, such as the Catholic, Anglican, and Presbyterian Churches, which have a significant social presence in Northern Ireland. Another possibility is to let people identify themselves as members of religious communities, such as the Catholic or Presbyterian Church, and then to compare this self-identification with their attitudes to abortion.

Northern Ireland’s major Christian denominations position themselves in opposition to abortion. The Presbyterian Church describes itself in a statement from June 2017 as a pro-life Church because even unborn life is incredibly precious and special to God. A similar message was put forward by the Anglican Church in an official 2016 letter addressed to politicians and policy leaders, which was also signed by all other major churches. In the same year, the Catholic Church in Northern Ireland also campaigned against changes to the law on abortion, arguing that more lenient abortion laws would threaten human dignity and the right to life.

In spite of these official statements, a recent report published by the Access Knowledge Research Institute Northern Ireland found that the majority of Northern Irish citizens support some access to abortion, independent of their denomination or religiosity. The large scale representative public survey, which interviewed over 1,200 persons, suggested that at least two thirds of self-idenified Catholic, Protestant, and ‘non-religious’ Northern Irish citizens think abortion should be allowed if a woman’s life or mental health is at risk, but also if the foetus has fatal abnormalities or the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest (Gray, 2017). Because the report questioned a representative sample of the Northern Irish public, it is believed to be one of the most comprehensive surveys of public attitudes concerning abortion.

In the case of serious or fatal fetus abnormalities (the report distinguishes between the two), three-quarters of Catholic and Protestant participants state that abortion should be legal. Very similar numbers can be observed concerning pregnancy after rape. By comparison, around 90% of ‘non-religious’ participants expressed support for abortions in all scenarios to be legal. In total, the majority of Northern Irish citizens seem to favour a more liberal approach to access to abortion.

As such, it seems possible to say that there is a discrepancy between the attitudes of religious  institutions  and the self-identified ‘religious’  citizens  in Northern Ireland concerning its abortion laws.

If the majority of Northern Irish citizens are in favor of liberalizing the abortion laws, including those who identify as Catholic or Protestant, then they do so in opposition to official church teaching. Identifying as a member of a Christian church seems not to be the only deciding factor in whether someone in Northern Ireland is pro-life or pro-choice. Perhaps we should be more critical when reading about abortion-related news in Northern Ireland. If we can break the perception of religious/conservative vs secular/liberal dichotomy in the Northern Irish society, we might be able to develop new solutions and challenge abortion stigma in new ways.


Gray, A. M. (2017). Attitudes to abortion in Northern Ireland.  Research Update 115

Kumar, A., Hessini, L., & Mitchell, E. M. H. (2009). Conceptualising abortion stigma.  Culture, Health and Sexuality 11 (6), 625–639.


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