Women who suffered under Northern Ireland‘s stringent abortion law are celebrating as the country prepares to decriminalise the procedure.

The termination of pregnancies will become legal from midnight on Monday after MPs in Westminster voted by a landslide in July to give women the right to abortion, as well as permit same-sex marriage.

Abortion within the first 24 weeks of pregnancy has been legal in England, Wales and Scotland for decades, but remained banned in Northern Ireland in almost all circumstances – including rape and incest.

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Reform campaigners and women affected by the restrictions gathered in front of Stormont on Monday morning to celebrate the law change. They held 3ft letters reading “decriminalised” outside Northern Ireland’s legislative assembly.

Sarah Ewart, who was forced to travel to England for an abortion in 2013 after being told there was no way her unborn child would survive, was among the women marking the day.

She said: “This has been a long time coming. We have been fighting for years for change so that we can have compassionate healthcare at home. Finally, abortion will be treated for what it is – healthcare, a decision between each individual woman and their doctor rather than police and judges. Medics will be able to treat women like me without fear of prosecution.

“I’m hugely relieved this moment has arrived”.

Earlier this month, in a case brought by Ms Ewart, the High Court in Belfast ruled Northern Ireland’s abortion law infringed the UK’s human rights obligations.

The 28-year-old has previously told The Independent she was “devastated and terrified” to learn she would have to make the journey to England for the first time to have an abortion. 

“I cannot describe the fear of not knowing where I was going to have this procedure and who was going to carry it out,” she said. “It was torture. Things would have been so different if I’d been able to have the abortion at home with family and friends and a medical team that know me.”

Campaigners who have spearheaded calls for abortion reform gathered in front of Stormont (AFP)

Denise Phelan, who was also denied a termination despite doctors saying her baby would not survive, said: “Today is a momentous occasion and we are absolutely looking forward to human rights being delivered in Northern Ireland. 

“But for us it won’t be a celebration, it will be a time of remembrance for all of the women who have suffered who have been forced to give birth to dead babies. We will be glad to see this barbaric and cruel regime come to an end.” 

Grainne Teggart, campaigns manager for Amnesty International, said: “At midnight, history will be made. This is a hugely significant moment and is the beginning of a new era for Northern Ireland – one in which we’re free from oppressive laws that have policed our bodies and healthcare. Finally, our human rights are being brought into the 21st century.”

The women gathered at Stormont as Northern Ireland’s assembly sat for the first time in almost three years on Monday after being recalled by the DUP in a last-ditch attempt to stop abortion becoming legal.

However, the lunchtime sitting was largely symbolic, as the assembly cannot perform its legislative functions without a ministerial executive in place.

It means that, from midnight onwards, police will no longer be able to carry out investigations on abortions and all criminal proceedings on termination will be dropped. 

A 12-week consultation will launch soon afterwards to determine how abortion services will be implemented from 31 March – the date at which the UK government is legally required to have put in place guidelines for free, safe, legal and local abortion services.

Katherine O’Brien, associate director of campaigns at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), welcomed the law change but said “this alone will not be enough to enable women to access abortion care in Northern Ireland”.

She added: “For this to happen, the government must produce their consultation as soon as possible, and seek the voices of medical professionals to ensure services are commissioned, and that those who wish to provide abortion care receive the training and support they need.”

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