David Steel on Northern Ireland abortion law

David Steel

We’ve just caught up with an interview with David Steel on the BBC Northern Ireland political show The View. (The interview starts 17:58 minutes in)

David was responsible for introducing the Abortion Act in 1967, which made abortion legal up to 28 weeks, later reduced to 24 weeks. But the law was never extended to Northern Ireland where the Offences Against the Person Act of 1861 still applies. Under that law a woman who procures her own abortion is guilty of a felony and can be given a prison sentence of life, or for up to two years ‘with or without hard labour, and with or without solitary confinement’. Current regulations permit termination only if the woman’s life is at risk or if continuing the pregnancy would put her long-term health at risk.

David says:

I think they’ve got to face up to the fact that the law in Northern Ireland is simply ridiculous – 1861 – and it is time they came up at least to 1967, if not 2016.

It was not so long ago that many of us expressed shock at Donald Trump’s assertion that women should be punished for having an abortion. We all sobered up when we heard that was exactly what had happened here, now, and within the United Kingdom. In Belfast Crown Court a 21 year old woman was given a suspended jail sentence (and with it a criminal record) for taking abortion drugs she had bought online. Unlike many of her contemporaries she could not afford to travel to England for a legal abortion.

Last year a High Court ruling said that Northern Ireland’s ban on abortion breaches human rights.

David concludes:

I think women in Northern Ireland are being discriminated against by their own politicians  through their failure to stand up for a sensible framework of law on abortion which is available throughout most of Europe not just in the UK.


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  • Richard Underhill 27th Apr '16 - 7:52am

    This should be read alongside the work of human rights lawyers such as Mary Robinson, former senator president of the Republic of Ireland,

  • Richard Underhill 27th Apr '16 - 8:15am

    Wikipedia’s commentary is rather dry. She is charming and has a sense of humour, campaigning for the Presidency to the tune of Mrs Robinson. She was awarded the Liberal International Prize for Freedom at an LI Congress in Budapest. She was nominated for the Irish Presidency by two parties.

  • Eddie Sammon 27th Apr '16 - 9:33am

    I feel passionate about abortion rights. I’d struggle to vote for a politician against them.

    Some people feel very different though and I’m not supporting abortion at any time. But a ban on early stage abortions doesn’t seem fair at all and lots of people in America who say they are pro life end up supporting the death penalty too.

  • Richard Underhill 23rd Mar '17 - 9:08am

    It should be remembered that this was a Private Member’s bill in which MPs likely to oppose the reform were not canvassed. Back street abortions were a curse. The system for such bills is usually described as a lottery. David Alton MP came third in a later lottery and campaigned against abortion, which must have caused strain within the parliamentary party. David Steel has said that luck played a large part in his career, including the opportunity of a parliamentary by-election in a seat which Jo Grimond had persuaded him to contest. At the Special Assembly in Blackpool which approved the merger with the SDP he said “The new party will be a liberal party, or I would be voting against merger”. He voted for merger and should be quoted in full.
    The recent feature in The Times said that his wife Judy is ill and that he will be to attend parliament in London less often. He has arranged legislation which allows peers to retire voluntarily.

  • Richard Underhill 6th Oct '17 - 8:18pm

    Channel 4 Unreported World has broadcast a program tonight about the abortion referendum in the Irish Republic. The existing law in Ireland contains exceptions and anomalies which cause behaviours we might not expect.
    The Roman Catholic church is opposed to abortion. The referendum is expected to be decided in May or June 2017, which is before the Pope’s visit.
    Americans campaigning against a change in the law are not necessarily Catholics.
    The reporter has said she is pro-choice.

  • Richard Underhill 11th Oct '17 - 7:01pm

    Anne Robinson (of the Weakest Link) aged 73 is featured across six columns in Times 2 of 11/10/2017. She was one of the first women to have a legal abortion in 1968. The medical procedures have changed from surgery to chemicals, so she believes that the law should be updated. The programme is on BBC Two on Monday at 9pm. (16/10/2017)

  • Richard Underhill 19th Oct '17 - 1:41pm

    BBC Radio 4 World at One on 19/10/2017 included a contribution from David Steel. He said that the 1967 Act is out of date and supported decriminalisation. Other contributors included the Marie Stopes clinic and Polly Toynbee of the Guardian.

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