Belfast Telegraph

Commons to vote on relaxing abortion law in Northern Ireland

By Lauren Harte

MPs are next month set to vote on the contentious issue of making abortion legal in Northern Ireland.

The Labour MP Diana Johnson will introduce a 10-minute rule bill that will seek to decriminalise abortion and pave the way to allow women here to have a termination.

Northern Ireland will soon be the only part of the UK with an almost total ban on abortions.

It is estimated that about 28 women every week travel from here to England for terminations. Figures from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service recently suggested that 342 women crossed the Irish Sea for the procedure between March and May this year.

Calls for Northern Ireland's abortion laws to be reformed have intensified after a referendum in the Republic of Ireland in May resoundingly backed liberalising legislation south of the border.

Downing Street has previously said abortion law is a devolved issue. However, the absence of a power-sharing Assembly at Stormont has placed pressure on Westminster to act.

Prime Minister Theresa May's allies in the DUP, on whom she relies for her Commons majority, are staunchly opposed to relaxing abortion laws.

Under the 1967 Abortion Act, it is illegal for a woman to have a termination after 24 weeks for non-medical reasons and each procedure must be signed off by two doctors before it can go ahead. However, the bill being brought forward would remove the criminal sanctions and place the regulation with professional bodies. The bill has already won the backing of the Royal College of Midwives, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, and the British Medical Association.

While in theory abortions are illegal across the whole of the UK, women in England and Wales are given exemptions by the 1967 Act.

In March last year, MPs voted to decriminalise abortion in England and Wales, but the bill made no progress due to the subsequent general election.

Ms Johnson believes that far from over-riding devolution, her bill would enable Stormont to liberalise Northern Ireland's abortion laws when power-sharing resumes.

"It is time to remove this issue from the criminal law and treat it as a healthcare issue," she said.

Last week another Labour MP, Stella Creasy, publicly condemned DUP leader Arlene Foster's stance on abortion at a global women's caucus in Dublin Castle.

The audience audibly gasped after Ms Creasy said: "Right now there is only one woman who gets to make a choice about abortion rights for all women in Northern Ireland and she's called Arlene Foster.

"And because my Prime Minister needs to be in power by using the votes from this person, they don't want to move forward on abortion legislation, but I don't think it's right that that one woman should make that choice," she added.

North Belfast DUP MLA Paula Bradley slammed Ms Creasy's criticisms.

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