(with R. Whitaker) ‘Abortion Governance in the New Northern Ireland’

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


The 1998 Good Friday Agreement was widely heralded as a “new beginning” for Northern Ireland. It was to accommodate the conflicting nationalisms of British-identified unionists and Irish nationalists and to end sectarian and political violence and the democratic deficit created by direct rule from Westminster. However, greater political autonomy for Northern Ireland has tightened an already restrictive abortion regime. Women in the rest of the United Kingdom have ready access to publicly funded abortions under Britain’s 1967 Abortion Act. That law does not extend to Northern Ireland, leaving abortion there illegal in all but a few cases. Following Caldeira (2000) and Holston (2008), this paper argues that, insofar as the political potential of democracy rests on its social conditions, abortion governance in the new Northern Ireland reveals an uneven or “disjunctive” character to post-Agreement democracy and citizenship. These are explored through analysis of state policies and political discourses that work to entrench a distinctive moral regime: “privileged standards of morality that … govern intimate behaviours, ethical judgements, and their public manifestations” (Morgan and Roberts 2012: 242). Under the standards of this regime, legitimate sex is tied to reproduction, as exemplified by repeated public statements from the Assembly Justice Committee Chair that Northern Ireland law protects all “children” whether conceived “by choice or by chance.” Even as it makes the “unborn child” a bearer of rights in its own right, the anti-abortion discourse of governing politicians construes not only “unborn children” but also pregnant women as “vulnerable” and in need of state protection,. In these circumstances, women are left either to continue with an unwanted pregnancy against their will or seek a privatised solution. That solution may be legal - as when women travel to Britain and pay for terminations - or it may be illegal, as in the increasingly common use of abortion drugs purchased online. Either way, it is illicit according to the ethos of the official moral regime. The outworking of abortion politics in the official public sphere in turn reveals a political culture and post-Agreement state that are sectarianized in ways that are particularly challenging for pro-choice activists. These include the rhetorical force of conservatives’ claims to unite former enemies in a shared morality that cuts across national and sectarian boundaries - claims buttressed by the main churches’ active interventions in the politics of sexuality. (The Catholic Church has endorsed the Democratic Unionist Party – long staunchly anti-Catholic and anti-nationalist - for its determined opposition to abortion.) Institutionally, cross-community consent safeguards give greater weight to politicians who register as unionists or nationalists than to those non-aligned on the national question. Finally, the Agreement’s expansive rights and equality provisions have mitigated communal discrimination, but gender and class inequalities remain largely intact (Harvey 2012).
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationA Fragmented Landscape: Abortion Governance and Protest Logics in Europe
EditorsSilvia De Zordo, Joanna Mishtal, Lorena Anton
Place of PublicationNew York
PublisherBerghahn Books
ISBN (Print)978-1-78533-427-6
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 2016


  • Abortion
  • Devolution
  • moral regime
  • Northern Ireland


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