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Time for Theresa May to relax abortion laws laws in Northern Ireland, insists Labour peer

By Shaun Connolly and David Hughes

Labour has told Prime Minister Theresa May to prove her feminist credentials by reforming Northern Ireland's strict abortion laws.

Mrs May had already faced calls from MPs across the Commons - including within her own Cabinet - to resolve the "anomalous" situation in Northern Ireland following the overwhelming referendum result in the Republic in favour of liberalisation.

Labour said it was now "looking at legislative options" to see how that could be achieved by Westminster.

The party's shadow attorney general Baroness Chakrabarti said reform was a matter of fundamental human rights.

Shami Chakrabarti told the BBC: "We are calling on Mrs May, a self-identifying feminist, to negotiate with the parties in Northern Ireland and then to legislate without further delay. You can't have democracy without fundamental human rights. And the women of Northern Ireland have suffered for long enough.

"I think that Theresa May, really as a self-identifying feminist, needs to say 'yes, I unveil statues of suffragists in Parliament Square, but the test of my feminism will be whether I guarantee fundamental human rights for women'.

"These women in Northern Ireland, often very vulnerable, being forced to leave their homes, and their loved ones, and their country, to get this kind of treatment, that really has gone on for long enough.

"And the result in the Republic just makes the situation even more anomalous now."

Labour MP Stella Creasy claimed more than 140 parliamentarians had already signalled support for an effort to change the law here, and called on Mrs May to "say you will give a free vote on 21st-century abortion laws".

Ms Creasy, who played a key role in Northern Irish women now being able to access free NHS terminations in England, said she was "calling for the repeal of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, which is what makes it criminal for a woman to procure her own abortion".

She said a woman who was raped in Northern Ireland and who sought an abortion could face a longer prison sentence than her attacker. The Walthamstow MP added: "Stopping abortion in Northern Ireland doesn't stop abortion, it forces women in NI to travel overseas or seek unsafe medical procedures, particularly buying pills online.

"This is about treating women in Northern Ireland with the same dignity as women in other parts of the United Kingdom."

But the Prime Minister faces a political headache over the issue because her fragile administration depends on the support of the 10 DUP MPs - who strongly oppose any reform to Northern Ireland's strict laws.

Downing Street believes that any reform in Northern Ireland "is an issue for Northern Ireland", a source said, adding "it shows one of the important reasons we need a functioning executive back up and running".

In a post on Twitter, Mrs May said the vote in the Irish Republic was "an impressive show of democracy which delivered a clear and unambiguous result".

She added: "I congratulate the Irish people on their decision and all of #Together4Yes on their successful campaign."

But DUP leader Arlene Foster said: "The legislation governing abortion is a devolved matter and it is for the Northern Ireland Assembly to debate and decide such issues.

"Some of those who wish to circumvent the Assembly's role may be doing so simply to avoid its decision.

"The DUP is a pro-life party and we will continue to articulate our position. It is an extremely sensitive issue and not one that should have people taking to the streets in celebration."

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