Accepted paper:

Abortion governance in the new Northern Ireland


Robin Whitaker (Memorial University of Newfoundland)

Paper short abstract:

The restoration of devolved government to Northern Ireland has tightened an already restrictive abortion regime, making abortion there illegal in virtually all circumstances. This paper argues that Northern Ireland’s abortion regime exemplifies the disjunctive quality of post-Agreement democracy.

Paper long abstract:

The 1998 Belfast Agreement was widely heralded as a 'new beginning': a means to end ethno-national conflict and restore democracy to Northern Ireland. However, greater political autonomy has tightened an already restrictive abortion regime. In Britain, women have ready access to publicly funded abortions under the 1967 Abortion Act. That law does not extend to Northern Ireland, leaving abortion illegal there in virtually every case. This paper argues that Northern Ireland's abortion governance reveals the disjunctive character of post-Agreement democracy and citizenship, to use Teresa Caldeira and James Holston's term. State policies and political discourses tie legitimate sex to reproduction in a way better characterised as pro-birth than pro-life. Even as these make the 'unborn child' a bearer of rights, the anti-abortion discourse of governing politicians also construes pregnant women as 'vulnerable' and requiring state protection. This leaves women facing an unwanted pregnancy either to continue against their will or seek a privatised solution, legal or illegal, but always illicit in terms of Northern Ireland's official abortion regime. The strength of this regime is inseparable from the Agreement's authorization of ostensibly rival nationalisms. Cross-community consent safeguards privilege unionist and nationalist politicians and give institutional backing to the rhetorical force of conservatives' claims to unite former enemies in a shared morality that cuts across national and sectarian boundaries. Thus, the invocation of a shared 'Northern Ireland' ethos and demands for exceptional status within the United Kingdom hinge, paradoxically, on the continued strength of competing nationalisms in the post-Agreement period.

panel P22
Health and wellbeing in post-war Europe: the contentious issue of abortion