Northern Ireland

Abortion: 'Ridiculous' that NI operates under 1861 termination law, says Lord David Steel

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Media captionLord Steel said women are being discriminated against by politicians refusing to change abortion law, as Marie-Louise Connolly reports

A peer who was responsible for liberalising abortion law in Britain has said it is "ridiculous" that Northern Ireland continues to operate under the 1861 legislation.

Unlike the rest of the UK, abortion is only permitted in Northern Ireland if a woman's life is at risk or there is a permanent or serious risk to her mental or physical health.

Lord David Steel said that by not changing the law in Northern Ireland, politicians were discriminating against women.

The Liberal Democrat peer told the BBC: "I think they've got to face up to the fact the law in NI is simply ridiculous.

"1861... it is time they came up at least to 1967, if not to 2016."

By introducing the 1967 Abortion Act to Britain, Lord Steel brought about an overhaul of the Victorian legislation.

Image caption Lord Steel said it is shocking that Northern Ireland refuses to change its law on abortion

The act legalised abortions to be performed by the NHS up to 28 weeks.

That was later reduced to 24 weeks in 1990.


While Lord Steel acknowledges that it will always remain a controversial subject, he said it was shocking that Northern Ireland refused to change the law.

"I find it absolutely extraordinary that Northern Ireland doesn't, even in a small way, attempt to catch up with where we were in 1967," he said.

"Fifty years later is just incredible."

"I think politicians [in the House of Commons and the House of Lords] look slightly askance at those from Northern Ireland, and say: 'How can you possibly represent human rights in that territory if you allow your colleagues in Northern Ireland to constantly turn their backs on a sensible law?'"

Image caption Northern Ireland operates under abortion law in the Offences Against the Person Act 1861

But others disagree, including Baroness Nuala O'Loan, who hit back at Lord Steel's comments.

She said that the 1967 Abortion Act is not working in England.

"We are getting babies aborted who have cleft palates, a club foot," Baroness O'Loan said.

"We have seen the scandal of forms that are pre-signed to give consent to abortions.

"So clearly the 1967 act is not working in England.

"To translate it into Northern Ireland law would not, I don't think, be wise."


In 2014, Baroness O'Loan quit the British Medical Association's (BMA) ethics body over its stance on abortion.

She said she is "vehemently" against abortion and that Northern Ireland's legislation does not need to be changed.

Image caption Baroness O'Loan said she is "vehemently" against abortion

"I don't think its a matter of women being treated differently," she said.

"I think it's a matter of society deciding what it wants to do.

"There is no human right to abortion, so that is the starting point.

The [European Court of Human Rights] in Strasbourg has said it is for countries to determine whether they wish to legislate to provide for abortion.

"Some countries have and some countries haven't. I believe abortion is wrong."

The anti-abortion charity, Life NI, has also said there is no need to redefine the boundaries of Northern Ireland's abortion law.