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Labour tones down abortion pledge for Northern Ireland

By Linda Stewart

The Labour Party has watered down pledges to legalise abortion in Northern Ireland since its draft manifesto was leaked last week.

The finalised document, launched yesterday, now pledges to "work with" the Stormont Assembly on the issue.

In a draft manifesto leaked last week, the party said it would "continue to ensure a woman's right to choose a safe, legal abortion - and we will legislate to extend that right to women in Northern Ireland".

That pledge sparked concerns that a Labour government would force a change in the law against the wishes of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and was branded "high-handed interference" by the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC).

The finalised manifesto now reads: "Labour will continue to ensure a woman's right to choose a safe, legal abortion - and we will work with the Assembly to extend that right to women in Northern Ireland."

But pro-choice campaigners say that while abortion law is a devolved issue, the failure to meet human rights standards is a matter for Westminster.

Grainne Teggart, Northern Ireland campaigns manager for Amnesty International, said: "Health and justice are devolved but it is a UK Government responsibility to fulfil its international human rights obligations. Abortion is a human rights and healthcare issue.

"The ongoing failure of the Assembly to legislate for abortion leaves the responsibility squarely with the Westminster Government.

"In recent weeks we have raised this issue with all main UK political parties and will be following up after the general election."

Clare Murphy, Director of External Affairs with bpas (the British Pregnancy Advisory Service), which provides abortions, said she welcomed any moves to improve women's access to lawful services in Northern Ireland.

"Abortion is a devolved issue, hence Labour's pledge to work with the Assembly to move forward on this," she commented.

"Ultimately, bpas would like to see abortion decriminalised across the UK, and abortion regulated in the same way as other health care services - from Belfast to Brighton.

"In the meantime we would also like to see women from Northern Ireland, as UK taxpayers, able to access NHS-funded abortion services in England. The fact they must both travel and pay privately for treatment that women elsewhere in the UK receive for free is grossly unfair."

Alliance for Choice said it would welcome Labour pushing the Assembly to ensure free, safe and legal abortion access for people in Northern Ireland, but through legislation here as opposed to the extension of the flawed 1967 Act.

"It would be interesting to see if Labour are going to push as strongly from a whole-party front for decriminalisation in England and Wales too," a spokesperson said.

"It's heartening that outside parties and organisations want to work to improve reproductive choices in Northern Ireland but also sad that in 2017 we're discussing this using the language of 'extending rights', which really makes it sound like we're asking for something over and above, when in reality these should be basic human rights afforded to every person who needs them, regardless of geographical location or class."

The 1967 Abortion Act has never been introduced to Northern Ireland and women here may only access a termination if their life is at risk, or there is a permanent or serious risk to their mental or physical health.

Foetal abnormalities, rape and incest are not considered grounds for a legal abortion, so hundreds of women from Northern Ireland travel to Britain each year for terminations.

The issue of abortion is devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont, although the Westminster Parliament can technically impose a change in the law on the province.

However, previous attempts have failed, including a 2008 proposal that was blocked by the then Leader of the House of Commons, Harriet Harman, over fears it could lead the House of Lords amending existing British law.

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