Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) signed the United States’ strictest abortion regulations into law this week, sparking condemnation on both sides of the political aisle. The extreme measure forbids abortion in nearly all cases, including rape or incest, and makes it a felony for doctors to perform the procedure.
But amid the outrage directed at Alabama, activists across the Atlantic are pointing out that there’s a place where abortion regulations are even more draconian: Northern Ireland.
The United Kingdom gave doctors the authority to perform abortions in England, Wales and Scotland with the 1967 Abortion Act, which allowed abortion up to 24 weeks into a pregnancy as long as two doctors sign off on it. Abortions are also allowed in certain other cases where the woman’s health is threatened or where there is risk to the fetus. (Technically, abortion is still illegal under the U.K.’s Offences Against the Person Act of 1861, but the more recent law supersedes it.)
But those rules were not extended to Northern Ireland, which has some of the most restrictive abortion laws of any developed nation. Under no circumstances except to preserve the woman’s physical and mental health are abortions legal in Northern Ireland.
And while the Alabama law penalizes doctors who perform abortion, threatening them with up to 99 years or life behind bars, Northern Ireland penalizes both the doctors and the women who terminate their pregnancies. Both can face life in prison.
According to the Northern Ireland Department of Health, just 12 abortions were performed in the country in a year-long period measured between 2017 and 2018. That’s one fewer than in the period measured between 2016 and 2017. Most were performed on women over age 30.
Of course, that figure does not represent the number of Northern Ireland women who actually obtain abortions. Hundreds travel across the Irish Sea each year to England in order to safely terminate their pregnancies, or else flout the law by ordering abortion pills online. But both of those options cost money, and travel takes time. Women’s health advocates say those costs disproportionately hit the poorest women and families the hardest.
In 2015, a Belfast High Court ruled that Northern Ireland’s near-total ban on abortion violated the human rights of women and girls. But only lawmakers can enact a policy change. Pressure to do so has ramped up since Ireland repealed its own repressive abortion law last year with 66.4% support.
Changing the policy, however, could prove difficult. Northern Ireland is one of the most conservative regions of the U.K., although polling has found its residents largely favor reform.
The country’s policies have occasionally made headlines as women are prosecuted for obtaining illegal abortions there.
In 2014, a woman who didn’t have the money to travel for an abortion ordered pills online to terminate her pregnancy, but her housemates reported her to police. She was given a suspended sentence in 2016. A mother in Northern Ireland is currently facing charges for providing abortion pills for her then-15-year-old daughter in 2013. Police in Belfast raided a number of women’s homes to search for abortion pills in 2017, targeting them on International Women’s Day during demonstrations.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Northern Irish women are not entitled to free abortion care at National Health Service facilities in England. While this was true in the past, Northern Irish women are now able to obtain abortions free of cost in England.