Belfast hustings: what did Liz Truss say about UK abortion laws in Northern Ireland?

Liz Truss rejects calls to ban abortion in Northern Ireland when she was questioned by audience members at the hustings event in Belfast.

Liz Truss has said that Northern Ireland should have the same abortion laws as the UK, at today’s hustings event in Belfast.

The Tory leadership candidate was asked on two separate occasions about abortion, which was illegal until 2019.

In her first response she said that she would not abolish abortion in Northern Ireland as the same abortion laws should apply across the United Kingdom - receiving a round of applause.

Abortion has long been a contentious issue in Northern Ireland, and many women from the region have been forced to travel to England to access medical services.

Liz Truss rejected calls to ban abortion at Belfast hustings event

So what exactly did the Foreign Secretary say about abortion, and why is it important?

What did Liz Truss say?

At the hustings event in Belfast, an audience member asked the South West Norfolk MP if she will be the “modern day William Wilberforce and see abortion abolished and infanticide ended?”

He argued that abortion legislation had been “undemocratically and unconstitutionally imposed” on Northern Ireland.

To what was perhaps the loudest round of applause of the event, Ms Truss replied: “I’m afraid I don’t agree with you.”

The audience member followed up his question by asking whether “at the very least”, Ms Truss will let Northern Irish people have their say on the issue if she wins the race to replace Boris Johnson as Prime Minister.

But the Foreign Secretary said that laws should apply across the whole of the UK.

The Foreign Secretary also visited Belfast Harbour as part of her trip to Northern Ireland

She explained: “I think we are a United Kingdom, and we need to apply laws right across the United Kingdom.

“That is what being a union is.”

Earlier in the event, Ms Truss had referred to the union as a “family” that she never wants to “split up”.

The Tory leadership contender echoed her comments on abortion to a second audience member, who also asked about Northern Ireland getting its own vote on abortion.

However, while Ms Truss said Northern Ireland should not be able to have different laws to the rest of the UK, she did concede that the province should be able to make its own decisions on sex education.

What is the history of abortion in Northern Ireland?

The 1967 Abortion Act, which legalised abortion in many cases in Great Britain, never actually applied to Northern Ireland.

This meant that for many years, Northern Ireland had much stricter laws than the rest of the United Kingdom.

Many women were therefore forced to travel to England to access medical services, as having or performing an abortion was considered a criminal offence in the region.

However, in 2019, the UK Government acted to change the law in Northern Ireland. This meant that:

  • terminations were permitted in all circumstances in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy
  • terminations were permitted in cases where there is a substantial risk that the foetus would die
  • terminations were permitted in cases where if born, it would suffer a severe mental or physical impairment 

There have been several legal challenges to this.

Despite the new legislation, abortion in Northern Ireland has been referred to by some as a “postcode lottery”.

Services are said to lack resources, and in April 2021, the Western Health Trust even suspended its early abortion services because the system was “unsustainable”.

In May, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis told Stormont to set up fully-funded abortion services within the next few weeks

In July 2021, Westminster issued a formal direction to Stormont’s Department of Health to set up full abortion services in Northern Ireland by no later than March 2022.

But many claim this has still not been achieved, and in May of this year, then-Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis told Stormont it must set up fully-funded services within weeks.

Mr Lewis said he had a “legal and moral duty” to intervene due to the lack of progress.

The DUP has long tried to restore Northern Ireland’s ban on abortions, with the party putting forward a bill to prevent abortions in cases of non-fatal disabilities in 2021.