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Abortion: After passionate speeches in Commons, what happens next?


Jess Phillips

Jess Phillips

Anna Soubry

Anna Soubry


Jess Phillips

The DUP'S ardent affection for the Mother of Parliaments is well-known - but the party's MPs were very much out on a limb yesterday as the House of Commons discussed abortion here.

East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson said he wasn't embarrassed by the law in Northern Ireland, but the vast majority of speakers during the often emotional three-hour debate clearly were.

It was far from just left-wingers and liberals voicing support for legislative change. The number of Tories, particularly female MPs, demanding that Northern Ireland women have the same rights as their sisters in England, Scotland and Wales was significant. They weren't just going through the motions either. The passionate nature of their contributions showed this is an issue that has finally captured Westminster's attention.

The stand-out moment of the debate came when Labour's Jess Phillips read out correspondence from Northern Ireland women who had crisis pregnancies. A working-class rape victim whose mother had to borrow the money for her to travel to England. A woman with mental health issues. Another with an abusive partner.

Former Tory minister Anna Soubry described our laws as "cruel, repressive... they have to change".

So is the Prime Minister likely to do anything about it? She's indicated she won't, and the fact the DUP's 10 MPs hold the balance of power in Westminster does obviously restrict her. But let's remember that even during lengthy periods of direct rule, successive governments failed to act on this issue.

Theresa May certainly isn't the first Downing Street resident to argue that abortion is a matter for Northern Ireland politicians alone.

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Still, the Republic's landslide referendum result piles the pressure on her as Northern Ireland is now very much the odd state out in these islands. It's only a matter of how long the status quo holds.

Tomorrow's Supreme Court ruling on whether our abortion law breaches women's human rights will be important for both pro-choice and anti-abortion campaigners.

A yes verdict will strengthen the hand of those seeking change at Westminster because human rights aren't devolved to Stormont. If the judgment goes the other way, it will take the wind from the sails of pro-choice campaigners. But it doesn't mean that anti-abortion activists can relax.

The Government has signalled it won't lead the charge for abortion reform, but neither does it appear that it will block change.

Rather it has indicated that, if the issue is raised in Parliament, there will be a free vote with MPs able to decide according to their conscience.

Labour's Stella Creasy has pledged to table an amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill which would decriminalise abortion here. Yesterday's debate appears to shows she has the support of enough Tory MPs to win.

The Bill is currently out for consultation but it is only a matter of time before it comes to the Commons.

The abortion debate still rages fiercely in Northern Ireland. Yet, in terms of some change, the writing's on the wall for all who want to read it.

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