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Northern Ireland Strikes Victory for Equality

Legal Green Light for Abortion Services, Same-Sex Marriage Only a First Step

Equal marriage supporters at Maverick Bar, Belfast, celebrate the change to abortion and same sex marriage laws in Northern Ireland at 00:01 on Monday.  © Liam McBurney/PA via AP Images

Clocks over Northern Ireland were counting down as the region prepared for a leap toward furthering equality.

At midnight on Monday, legislation came into force that decriminalized abortion and legalized same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland.

The celebrations were widespread – on Twitter, people posted photographs of countdown clocks, and women’s rights campaigners took to the streets to celebrate.

According to the legislation, same-sex weddings will be able to take place starting February 2020. The government has until April 2020 to put in place the types of abortion services available in other parts of the country. In the meantime, it must cover the costs for women from Northern Ireland who travel to other parts of the United Kingdom for services.

These changes came about when campaigners leveraged the fact that Northern Ireland’s own governing Assembly hadn’t convened since early 2017 to push for legal reform via Westminster. While adopting legislation regulating Westminster’s legal power in Northern Ireland during the power vacuum, UK MPs included amendments that extended rights to marriage equality and access to abortion to Northern Ireland.

The Northern Ireland Assembly had until October 21 to convene if it wanted to block the amendments taking effect. That didn’t happen, despite last-ditch efforts by some of the region’s socially conservative politicians. This resistance could be a sign of things to come, with the political will to make it possible to exercise these rights in doubt.

Marriage equality requires marriage licenses as well as people to conduct ceremonies, make cakes, and provide venues. Safe abortions means not only access to abortion services, but also counselling, advice, education, and aftercare.

Human Rights Watch has seen that legal changes are not enough to ensure acceptance.

In the United States, celebrations over marriage equality in 2015 were followed by a series of stories about people refusing to provide wedding services, as well as same-sex couples struggling to adopt. Marriage equality needs antidiscrimination laws to back it up.

Increasing access to abortion is sometimes thwarted by allowing health care providers overly broad claims to conscientious objection that result in refusals to perform the procedure. Comprehensive reproductive rights also require comprehensive sexuality education for children, including how to avoid pregnancy and options they have in the event of an unwanted pregnancy. Too many governments, including the one in Northern Ireland, fail to provide this.

The next few months will be telling for Northern Ireland, and after the celebrations fade, campaigners will need to keep checking that what they fought so hard for comes to fruition.

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