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Explainer: ERLC expands pro-life work to Northern Ireland

Mar 6, 2020

What just happened?

The ERLC has long played an active role in advocating for the protection of religious freedom and standing for human dignity in the international context. Similarly, the ERLC has been a constant voice for protecting the lives of the most vulnerable in our society. As a logical extension of that work, ERLC is partnering with other groups to oppose abortion in Northern Ireland.

“Against the will of the people, abortion has been decriminalized in Northern Ireland, a place many have previously viewed as one the of last remaining pro-life countries,” said Brent Leatherwood, ERLC’s director of strategic partnerships. “Now, Christians there find themselves thrust into a new reality where the state will officially sanction this assault on human dignity for the first time. As an American, I can’t help but imagine going back in time in our own history when abortion was legalized in the states. In effect, it’s now 1973 in Northern Ireland.

What is the difference between Ireland and Northern Ireland?

The primary difference is political. The island used to be one single territory, but in 1921 it was partitioned into two different countries. The Republic of Ireland (or Eire) is an independent sovereign state, whereas Northern Ireland (also known as Ulster) is part of the United Kingdom, alongside England, Scotland, and Wales.

The Republic of Ireland (known simply as Ireland) has a population of 4.83 million, while Northern Ireland has a population of 1.88 million.

What is the religious makeup of Ireland and Northern Ireland?

The Republic of Ireland is predominantly Catholic, while Northern Ireland is about equally split between Catholics (41%) and Protestants (42%). In the Protestant Christian community, the reformed Presbyterians have some of the strongest support. Anglicans, Baptists, and Methodists also have strong presences, as well as non-denominational churches.

What is the legal status of abortion in Northern Ireland?

A law in 1861 law made it a criminal offence to procure a miscarriage. In 1945, an exception was added to say abortion could be permitted to preserve the mother's life. No exceptions were made for rape, incest or diagnoses of fatal fetal abnormality. However, women from Northern Ireland could have free abortions in other areas of the U.K. (England, Scotland, and Wales).

In October 2019, the UK parliament decriminalised abortion and legalized same-sex marriage. At the time, the UK parliament gave the Northern Ireland government until the end of March to come up with regulations for the provision of abortion services.

Currently, no criminal charges can be brought against those who have an abortion or against healthcare professionals who provide a termination or assist in one. The sale and supply of medical abortion pills remains unlawful.

Women who seek a medical abortion will be financially supported to get an abortion in England. In the interim period, abortions in cases of "fatal or serious fetal anomaly" can be carried out in Northern Ireland up to 28 weeks. After April 2020, medical abortions will be provided at two hospitals in Northern Ireland.

The Department of Health will fund abortions, and doctors who have qualified in the past eight years or so will require training to perform abortions.

Why and how is ERLC getting involved?

While the ERLC remains committed to American pro-life work, the organization recognizes an urgent need that it cannot ignore in Northern Ireland.

As part of the effort to save preborn lives that are now in jeopardy, the ERLC’s Psalm 139 Project has pledged to fund the placement of at least one ultrasound machine with a Christian, pro-life ministry in Northern Ireland. These machines have proven to be life-saving tools for organizations dedicated to serving both vulnerable mothers and their preborn children. This will be the first international placement by the ERLC.

The ERLC is forming new partnerships with local organizations on the ground in Northern Ireland in order to come alongside and equip Christians to navigate the looming abortion crisis.

 The partnering pro-life entities, in addition to the ERLC, focused on Northern Ireland, include:

ERLC President Russell Moore responded to the initiative by saying,

The church of Jesus Christ always has and always will stand for life at every age. That's why the ERLC feels called to respond to this urgent international threat to preborn children. Our hope is that our long and tragic experience with abortion in the United States might give us a unique ability to help equip and serve alongside the church in Northern Ireland in this moment. We are not going there with all the answers. Instead, we hope to communicate to our brothers and sisters in Christ that we will be alongside them for prayer and to help the reborn stand for the preborn.

These partnerships will engage Christians in two unique ways. A two-day conference, Stand for Life: Belfast, will take place June 19-20 in Belfast. The event will seek to equip leaders to think biblically about issues of life and human dignity and will provide training and development for pro-life ministries. Additionally, pro-life curriculum will be developed for churches across the islands to equip their staff, lead their congregations, and be a witness for life in the communities they serve.

Additional details about Stand for Life: Belfast will be announced on the initiative’s website: www.standforlife.uk.