Theresa May said women should have access to “safe, legal abortion” as she appeared to leave the door open for Parliament to reform Northern Ireland’s strict laws.
The Prime Minister, who has been under pressure from across the House of Commons to act, stressed that her “preferred option” was for the devolved issue to be addressed by Northern Ireland’s politicians.
But following the collapse of the power-sharing administration in Stormont, MPs have been pressing for Westminster to take responsibility.
I believe that a woman should be able to access safe, legal abortionTheresa May
Mrs May acknowledged that the Commons debate on the issue earlier this week had been “very moving” and indicated that any future decisions on abortion would be on the basis of a free vote.
The issue poses a political headache for the Prime Minister, who is forced to rely on the votes of the 10 MPs from the staunchly anti-abortion DUP to prop up her administration.
Speaking to journalists accompanying her on the trip to the G7 summit in Canada she said: “I believe that a woman should be able to access safe, legal abortion.”
Asked if she had a responsibility to the women of Northern Ireland to act, she said: “Obviously there are a variety of views on this issue, that’s why it is dealt with as a matter of conscience when we have these debates in the House of Commons and there was some very moving testimony given by MPs across the House the other day in the debate that took place on this particular issue.
“But this is, in terms of Northern Ireland, a devolved issue.
“I think the best way, and my preferred option, is for it to be dealt with and addressed by those people who are elected politicians in and elected as accountable politicians in Northern Ireland.
“We want to see the devolved government and the Assembly back up and running and we’ll continue to work to ensure that that’s the case.”
She said in the Commons abortion was a “conscience issue” and “will continue to be treated as a free vote”.
Her comments came after Supreme Court judges said Northern Ireland’s laws were incompatible with human rights legislation.
A majority of Supreme Court judges said the ban on terminations in cases of rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality needed “radical reconsideration”.
While the majority of judges expressed a view that the current regime is incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), they did not go so far as to make a formal declaration of incompatibility – a move that would probably have forced a law change.
Unlike other parts of the UK, the 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland.
Abortion is illegal except where a woman’s life is at risk or there is a permanent or serious danger to her mental or physical health. Anyone who unlawfully carries out an abortion could be jailed for life.
The Northern Ireland Assembly voted in February 2016 against legalising abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality and rape or incest.
The debate in Northern Ireland has intensified after citizens in the Irish Republic voted by a landslide last month to liberalise the state’s laws.