Legalising same-sex marriage and abortion in Northern Ireland will not just lift the fear and shame – it will remove handcuffs

The UK parliament has finally shown it will treat us as equal citizens with equal rights under the law

Grainne Teggart
Monday 22 July 2019 16:54 BST
MPs vote for legalising Northern Ireland abortion

Today Northern Ireland’s future has been re-written. After years of having our rights denied, our 158-year-long abortion ban is to be scrapped and same-sex marriage is to be legalised.

The Northern Ireland Bill has passed through its final stage, making it law by October this year unless a devolved Assembly is restored before that date.

This means that by early 2020, women will be able to access abortion services without facing a jail sentence and same-sex couples in Northern Ireland will be able to marry.

The implications of these reforms are huge. They will be completely life-changing, they’ll be culture and society-shifting.

Northern Ireland is now a place where generations to come won’t live in fear and shame for making a choice about their own body or marrying who they love.

And it’s not just people seeking an abortion or same-sex couples who will feel the effects. It’s everyone. Because the fear and shame has permeated our society.

Just over three years ago a woman from Belfast was prosecuted after her flatmates reported her to police for taking abortion pills at home. This has been the reality – widespread suspicion, secrecy and mistrust. People have been too scared to tell their family members, closest friends or doctors if they want to terminate a pregnancy. They’ve been going through difficult times on their own, forced to suffer in silence. This culture of shame has hung over Northern Ireland like a dark cloud.

For some, the law change will do much more than lift an oppressive cloud; it will remove handcuffs. Women facing prosecution under the abortion ban will have their charges dropped. Women like the mother who has been hauled through the courts for helping her 15-year-old daughter access abortion pills online. She’s facing the prospect of up to five years in prison. But today, after more than five painful years of fighting the justice system, she’s finally on the road to freedom.

And being a same-sex couple in Northern Ireland will no longer mean you’re treated as a second-class citizen – no longer not recognised as equal in the eyes of the law and denied the right to celebrate love in the way you choose.

For years now, Amnesty International, alongside other organisations and courageous, determined people, has been campaigning tirelessly on both issues.

It is with tribute to the many brave individuals who have told their stories, re-lived their traumatic experiences and fought with undeterred determination for change, that we have got to where we are today. People like Sarah Ewart, who was told her pregnancy had a fatal foetal diagnosis and was forced to travel to London for a termination after being denied one in Northern Ireland, and who has since been working closely with Amnesty to challenge the abortion ban in the courts.

Across Northern Ireland there has been an overwhelming call for this day to come. Public opinion has consistently shown that people support both law changes. UN bodies, midwives, doctors and lawyers have all been firmly behind and hoping for abortion law reform.

And now, politicians have listened to us and acted. The majority of MPs and peers from across the political spectrum have been committed to same-sex marriage and abortion reform for a long time. Their determination has now moved mountains.

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Getting to this point hasn’t been smooth running. Right up until the end there were moves in the Lords to block progress on these issues.

But MPs have voted with the will of the people and sent a message to Northern Ireland that we are not alone. More than two years ago Stormont collapsed. Whilst we wait for an Assembly to return, we cannot be expected to have our rights denied. The UK parliament has finally shown it will treat us as equal citizens with equal rights under the law.

Within a matter of months, same-sex couples should be walking down the aisle and women should have the choice to make private healthcare decisions. We won’t rest until this happens.

Grainne Teggart is Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland campaign manager

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