Last Wednesday MPs in Westminster voted in favour of lifting the abortion ban in Northern Ireland by a majority of 332 votes to 99. The passing of the amendment has been hailed as a historic day for women's rights but what does it mean in practical terms?

The change was achieved by a cross-party amendment to a technical government bill (connected to budgets and elections for Northern Ireland). The amendment was driven by a UN report (dated 23 February 2018) which concluded that "The situation in Northern Ireland constitutes violence against women that may amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment". Northern Ireland's strict anti-abortion laws (which mean that a woman who terminated a pregnancy after being raped would receive a longer prison sentence than the rapist) were described as representing grave and systematic violations of human rights. The report contained a number of recommendations, the most important of which was that legislation is adopted that will legalise abortion "at least" in circumstances where:

  • There is a threat to the pregnant woman's physical or mental health;

  • The pregnancy is the product of rape or incest; or

  • There is severe foetal impairment

The "Creasy amendment" (in reference to Labour MP Stella Creasy who proposed it), means that the Government must give effect to these recommendations by 21 October 2019 i.e. it must bring forward regulations to decriminalise abortion in Northern Ireland (at least in these circumstances).

The vote is therefore an important step towards the decriminalisation of abortion. However, a number of obstacles remain. First, if a Northern Ireland Executive is formed before 21 October 2019, then the obligation will fall away. Given the strength of opposition to abortion which still exists in Northern Ireland, it is possible that some will see this as a necessary step to avoid decriminalisation.

Secondly, the statutory instrument must be laid before both Houses of Parliament, meaning that there is still opportunity for it to be amended, weakened or even halted. Although the report provides detailed recommendations, it is inevitable that there will be much debate regarding the exact wording of any future regulation.

The immediate practical impact is, therefore, likely to be limited. Should it lead to abortion being decriminalised in Northern Ireland, however, the future impact will be significant. It will enable women in Northern Ireland to access abortion services at home, removing the financial and emotional burden of having to travel abroad for abortion procedures. In addition, since abortion providers often also offer other gynaecological and contraceptive services, their introduction into Northern Ireland will enable women to take greater control over their reproductive function.

Any change will also have a direct impact on existing abortion providers. In 2018 the number of Northern Irish women seeking abortions in England and Wales increased by 22%. Indeed, many abortion providers give specific guidance for women travelling from Northern Ireland. If Northern Irish women are able to access abortion care at home, then this will reduce the burden on providers in England and Wales.

Last Wednesday's vote is the first step in what is likely to be a long (and hotly-debated) road towards the decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland. However, the significant numbers of MPs who voted in favour demonstrates that legal access to abortion care is now more widely accepted as a woman's right and there is cross-party commitment to ensuring that women across the UK have access to this medical procedure.