Religion and Choice in Northern Ireland

We are delighted to welcome this guest post by Dr Fiona Bloomer and Claire Pierson, Ulster University. The authors can be reached at and

The subject of abortion, highly contentious in the Northern Ireland context, has until recently largely been ignored or sidestepped by human rights based organisations within Northern Ireland. The current Amnesty International campaign ‘My Body, My Rights’ is indicative of a global and local move towards discussing and considering abortion from a human rights perspective. At the same time it is clear that a discursive shift is taking place with regard to abortion in both the north and south of Ireland, particularly influenced by women’s own personal stories of abortion. In order to ensure this growing conversation has impact it is necessary to engage with all sectors of society, including those who may be perceived to be fundamentally opposed to abortion.

With this in mind, the authors recently organised a workshop as part of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Festival in December 2015 entitled ‘Is Religion Fundamentally Anti-Choice?’ to consider more nuanced views on abortion from faith based perspectives.  The event was attended by pro-choice and trade union activists, representatives of religious organisations and members of the public.

Internationally, there is a growing coalition of organisations who both identify as religious and advocate for more liberal perspectives on abortion; these include Catholics for Choice, the Religious Institute (USA) and the Latin American Council of Churches. Such organisations argue that the denial of abortion is immoral, for example the London Declaration of Pro-Choice Principles conceived by Catholics for Choice in conjunction with the British Pregnancy Advisory Service states that ‘a just society does not compel women to continue an undesired pregnancy.’ Allowing abortion under restricted circumstances is evident across a number of different faiths, including liberal Judaism, Islam, and the Methodist Church for Ireland.  Such positions are not contemporary, historical religious teachings have often been more nuanced on abortion allowing abortion up to a certain point in pregnancy or under particular circumstances (for example, Papal declarations which stated abortion become murder after the point of ‘quickening’).

In contrast to these perspectives, faith and religion across Northern Ireland’s religious divide are cited as cultural norms which prohibit Northern Ireland adopting the same stance towards abortion as the rest of the UK. For example, within political debate on abortion in Northern Ireland religion and faith have been cited by politicians as the fundamental reason for their opposition to more liberal legislation. In addition politicians cite a unified faith perspective on opposition to abortion, both across the ‘two communities’ of Northern Ireland and the island as a whole.

However, this stance does not reflect public opinion polls or more nuanced perspectives as typified by the discussion in the workshop. Within the conversation, participants welcomed the opportunity to have an open and non-judgemental discussion on abortion in a safe space. It was argued that often the labels of ‘pro-choice’ and ‘pro-life’ create an oppositional debate unreflective of the complexity of views and understanding of women’s right to abortion access.  Participants discussed how the domination of religious voices in Northern Ireland stating complete opposition to abortion creates a silencing effect on those who may wish to contribute to a more informed debate.

The language used to frame debates on abortion is highly important. Participants noted that the language used by both sides of the debate can be alienating for those considering their own perspectives on abortion but that in particular the language used by ‘pro-life’ groups which claims to support and protect women can be at odds with their behaviour outside clinics, the harassment of women outside the Marie Stopes clinic and the Family Planning Association office in Belfast being obvious examples. A human rights based approach to abortion debates has not necessarily furthered the abortion discussion in Northern Ireland, with women’s rights and foetus’s rights often being positioned as oppositional.

The outcome of the workshop made clear that there is a need for space to be created in Northern Ireland to shift the cultural conversation on abortion from one of judgement to one of empathy, compassion and affirmation of people’s moral agency. Such discussion must include faith and non-faith based perspectives and attempt to move away from assumptions about belief and resultant perspectives on abortion to afford a safe space where a diversity of views can come to the fore. With this in mind, the authors have organised a follow up discussion as part of the Imagine Belfast Festival in April which will engage faith perspectives in a guided discussion on abortion access in Northern Ireland.