There has been limited academic research on the issue of abortion in Ireland, north or south in an historical context and this article aims to fill this historiographical lacuna, taking a comparative approach to the issue of abortion in Belfast between 1917 and 1967. The experience of women who came before the authorities for attempting to terminate a pregnancy in Belfast is located in a wider historiographical context and the article discusses vernacular understandings of the legal and medical authorities’ attitudes toward abortion. Evidence from court records is used to recreate knowledge networks and to reconstruct the medical marketplace and the options facing women with unwanted pregnancies.
A study of abortion in Belfast not only offers a localized regional study, but also the religious and sectarian divisions in the city appear to have had a direct impact on networks of knowledge on how to terminate pregnancy. This article argues that Protestant women were significantly over-represented among those who appeared before the courts for abortion-related offences in comparison to their Catholic counterparts. It will also consider the high rate of single women identified in the court records for abortion-related offences in Belfast, suggesting this is an important reflection of the stigma and shame attached to illegitimacy in Ireland, north and south, in the first half of the 20th century, and the lack of support and options for unmarried mothers.