Northern Ireland and Chile to re-examine abortion laws

Abortion legislation in some parts of the world may be relaxed to provide women with more rights and better healthcare

Countries around the world are re-examining their abortion legislation in a shift praised by women’s rights groups.

In the last month, Chile and Northern Ireland have both committed to readdressing their abortion laws in order to give wider access to terminations. They follow Mozambique, which lifted its abortion ban in December.

Exempt from the UK’s 1967 Abortion Act, which gave termination rights to women in England, Scotland and Wales, Northern Ireland continues to have an absolute ban on abortion unless a woman’s life is in serious danger. Woman seeking a termination in Northern Ireland face the possibility of a 14 year prison sentence.

However, the first serious challenge to Northern Irish abortion law is now underway. On 2 February, the High Court in Belfast agreed to hear a case put forward by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. The commission wants the law to be changed so that local women can have the option of termination if there is a serious fatal foetal abnormality (meaning that the foetus would not survive outside of the womb) or if conception was the result of rape or incest.

“Restricting safe abortions does not lead to lower abortion rates, it just pushes it underground.”

A similar shift appears to be underway in Chile. In January, Chilean president Michelle Bachelet announced plans to end the ban on abortion in her country. Currently, women in Chile face a five year prison sentence for seeking access to abortion.

In much of Latin America, abortion is taboo and many countries legislate heavily against it. Abortion was first made illegal in Chile during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship which ran from 1973 to 1990. Since then a number of attempts have been made to overturn the ban, but have been blocked on each occasion by right wing politicians and campaign groups.

President Bachelet has proposed similar legislation to that being considered in Northern Ireland, and in a televised address on Chilean TV announcing the proposal, said: “This is a difficult situation and we must face it as a mature country.”

December of last year saw Mozambique pass a law enabling women to have an elective termination up to 12 weeks into pregnancy. In the cases of conception being the result of rape, this was increased to 16 weeks.

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Mozambique’s president Armando Guebuza said he was motivated to stem the high mortality rates amongst Mozambique women who attempt to end their pregnancies through illicit or so called ‘back street’ abortions. The World Health Organisation estimates that Mozambique has 490 maternal deaths for every 100,000 live births. The unusually high figure has been linked to the number of illegal abortions taking place and health organisations believe that the new law will see this figure decrease in the coming years.

The Northern Ireland programme director of Marie Stopes International, Dawn Purvis, said: “These changes are part of a continuing global debate around women’s access to vital healthcare. I welcome the recent proposals to change the law on abortion in Mozambique, Chile and of course Northern Ireland, and hope that those at the top use this opportunity to think again when it comes to their stance on abortion.”

She added: “Restricting safe abortions does not lead to lower abortion rates, it just pushes it underground.”

The High Court case in Northern Ireland will be heard over the coming weeks, while the Chilean president has presented her proposals to parliament for imminent debate.