Theresa May facing calls for abortion reform in NI

Pro-choice campaigners hold up signs calling for the liberalisation of abortion laws in Northern IrelandImage copyrightAFP/Getty Images
Image caption Attention has turned to NI after the Republic of Ireland voted overwhelming in favour of overturning the country’s abortion ban

A number of senior Conservative MPs have called for NI’s abortion law to be reformed after a historic referendum in the Republic of Ireland.

Dr Sarah Wollaston, chair of Westminster’s health committee, said women in Northern Ireland should have the same rights as other UK residents.

Northern Ireland’s abortion law is more restrictive than the rest of the UK.

Theresa May facing calls for abortion reform in NI
Theresa May facing calls for abortion reform in NI

Downing Street is understood to believe that any reform “is an issue for Northern Ireland”.

Prime Minister Theresa May is facing pressure to act after Ireland voted to end its abortion ban in Friday’s referendum.

But a Downing Street source said it showed “one of the important reasons we need a functioning executive back up and running”.

Northern Ireland has been without a government since January 2017, after a power-sharing deal between the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin collapsed.

Skip Twitter post by @10DowningStreet

“The Irish Referendum yesterday was an impressive show of democracy which delivered a clear and unambiguous result. I congratulate the Irish people on their decision and all of #Together4Yes on their successful campaign.” – PM @theresa_may#repealedthe8th

— UK Prime Minister (@10DowningStreet) May 27, 2018

End of Twitter post by @10DowningStreet

Mrs May tweeted on Sunday: “The Irish Referendum yesterday was an impressive show of democracy which delivered a clear and unambiguous result. I congratulate the Irish people on their decision and all of #Together4Yes on their successful campaign.” – PM @theresa_may #repealedthe8th”

Image copyrightReuters

Mrs May’s major headache

By Jayne McCormack, BBC News NI political reporter

At Saturday’s results announcement in Dublin Castle, Sinn Féin’s Mary-Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill held up a sign saying: “The north is next”.

But the other main party in Northern Ireland, the DUP will be fiercely opposing moves from Westminster or elsewhere to bring about change.

The party has deep religious roots and has always said that any relaxation in NI’s laws could bring about abortion on demand. It has many supporters who feel the same.

Nonetheless, the issue is out of Stormont’s hands due to the continuing stalemate – and pro-choice campaigners will be focusing their fight at Westminster, which presents a major headache for the prime minister.

Theresa May will have to walk yet another political tightrope.

She won’t want to upset the DUP and risk her parliamentary majority – especially at such a crucial time in the Brexit negotiations – but the growing pressure from within her own party and across Parliament on this issue means she will have to do something.

Speaking on BBC Radio 5 live’s Pienaar’s Politics programme, Dr Wollaston said she and other MPs in favour of abortion reform would put forward an amendment on the issue to Westminster’s Domestic Violence Bill.

However, she said she was not sure if the amendment would be accepted for debate as abortion would normally be a devolved issue for Stormont to decide on.

The Women and Equalities minister Penny Mordaunt, and her predecessors Amber Rudd, Justine Greening, Nicky Morgan and Maria Miller, have also called for reform of Northern Ireland’s abortion laws.

Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable has said Mrs May should take advantage of the current lack of a devolved administration and push for reform from Westminster.

“The position in Northern Ireland is now highly anomalous and I think, probably, action will now have to be taken,” he said.

Image copyrightGetty Images
Image caption Emotions ran high during the referendum campaign in Ireland

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said she did not want Westminster to legislate for abortions in Northern Ireland, but she argued that Irish law should apply to women from Northern Ireland.

“I couldn’t envisage a situation where women from the north would be precluded from accessing services here in the south,” she said.

‘I resorted to abortion pills’

After the resounding Yes vote on Saturday, one young woman from Northern Ireland decided to speak up about her experience of having an illegal, self-medicated abortion at home several years ago.

As a student recovering from mental health issues, Amy found herself pregnant when her contraception failed.

Unable to afford to travel to Britain for a procedure, she resorted to ordering abortion pills online.

She kept the ordeal from most of her family, and said the abortion was “horrifyingly painful” to go through at home without medical help or pain relief.

Read more: What next for abortion in NI?

Democratic Unionist Party politician Christopher Stalford said any change north of the border would have to be made through the devolved administration.

Adding that it was good to be out of step when a “bad step” had been taken, he said: “We have a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland and this will be a question for a restored executive.”

Northern Ireland’s abortion rules

Currently, a termination is only permitted in Northern Ireland if a woman’s life is at risk or if there is a risk of permanent and serious damage to her mental or physical health.

Rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormalities are not circumstances in which an abortion can be performed legally.

A fatal foetal abnormality diagnosis means doctors believe an unborn child has a terminal condition and will die in the womb or shortly after birth.

However, anti-abortion campaigners argue that doctors cannot accurately predict death, saying that terminally-ill babies “can and do defy the odds”.

There is no restriction on travelling outside Northern Ireland to seek a legal termination in another jurisdiction.

Last year, the Westminster government introduced measures to help women from Northern Ireland access free NHS abortions in England.

Why are Northern Ireland’s abortion laws different?

Anti-abortion group Precious Life said the result of the Republic of Ireland’s abortion referendum marked the “most tragic day in Irish history”.

Bernadette Smyth said the result would only “spur on” anti-abortion activists to step up their battle to protect the unborn north of the Irish border,

“Northern Ireland is now the beacon of hope to the pro-life movement around the world,” she said.

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