Northern Ireland has decriminalised abortion and same-sex marriage will now be legal. The changes to the legislation came into force at midnight on Monday. The region was the only part of the United Kingdom that banned same-sex marriage and forbade abortion except when a mother’s life is at risk.
The bans were upheld by the region’s block of conservative politicians until British MPs backed amendments that would compel the government to extend same-sex marriage to Northern Ireland and liberalise abortion if the country was unable to re-establish its own devolved government by October 21.
Earlier this month, the High Court in Belfast ruled that Northern Ireland’s abortion laws breached the UK’s human rights obligations.
The first same-sex marriages in Northern Ireland will take place in February 2020 and the government has until end of March to finalise regulations for the provision of abortion services.
The socially conservative Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and other politicians triggered a recall of Northern Ireland’s Assembly in an attempt to block the lifting of the bans on Monday. The assembly at Stormont had not sat in more than 1000 days since the province’s power-sharing executive collapsed almost three years ago and the assembly remains suspended, with Northern Ireland currently largely administered from London.
However, the move failed because a new speaker could not be elected in time.
“It is a very sad day and I know some people will seek to celebrate and I would say to those people, think of us who are sad today and who believe this is an affront to human dignity,” DUP leader Arlene Foster said after leaving the chamber.
However many campaigners celebrated the law changes with the hashtag #TheNorthIsNow on Twitter.
Religious conservatives in both the Protestant and Catholic communities have opposed abortion rights. But pressure mounted to change the Victorian-era laws in recent years — especially after the Republic of Ireland voted overwhelmingly last year to repeal a similarly restrictive ban.
“This is a bad law being implemented through a bad process leading to bad consequences for both women and unborn children,” said Dawn McAvoy from the anti-abortion Both Lives Matter group.
Regarding same-sex marriage, opinion has also changed but attempts to legalising it had been blocked by the DUP using a special veto intended to prevent discrimination towards one community over another.