How many women know they can still be prosecuted for having an abortion?

When it comes to women’s rights, Northern Ireland became the most progressive nation in Europe this week. Rose Stokes explains why we shouldn’t celebrate just yet

Abortion-rights demonstrators outside Stormont on the eve of the historic law change
Abortion-rights demonstrators outside Stormont on the eve of the historic law change

On Monday night, new legislation came into effect that made Northern Ireland the most progressive country in the United Kingdom – and Europe – when it comes to women’s reproductive rights. The legislation lifted a ban on abortion that had been in place for 158 years, after a vote in Westminster in July that required a change to the law on both this issue and same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland.

Alongside the legalisation of abortion services, the law signalled an end to the classification of terminating a pregnancy as a criminal offence for both service providers and users, removing the threat of prosecution for those involved and giving women in Northern Ireland the right to decide what happens with their bodies. For a country that is often considered the laggard among those that make up the United Kingdom when it comes to gender and sexual equality, this development was a huge marker of progress.

It also meant that – for the first time since the Abortion Act was passed in England, Wales and Scotland in 1967 – Northern Ireland is now home to the most liberal abortion policy in Great Britain. This owes to a fact of which the majority of British people are unaware: that abortion is still considered a criminal offence in England, Scotland and Wales.

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