MPs' vote calls for explanation of Northern Ireland abortion law

Westminster votes by 207 to 117 to force Karen Bradley to ‘issue guidance’ on continued enforcement of law

A landmark amendment forcing the Northern Ireland secretary, Karen Bradley, “to issue guidance” to explain how officials can continue to enforce the region’s draconian Victorian-era abortion law has been passed by MPs.

MPs in Westminster voted by 207 to 117 to impose their will, a matter normally reserved for Stormont, arguing that the abortion ban was incompatible with human rights on an amendment proposed by Labour’s Stella Creasy and Conor McGinn.

The victory is largely symbolic as it is not clear how much impact the amendment would have on existing practice. The NHS does not provide abortions in Northern Ireland, forcing women who live there to travel to Great Britain to obtain terminations.

An earlier, more clear-cut amendment put forward by the two Labour MPs had to be withdrawn because the clerks at the House of Commons said it was outside the scope of the Northern Ireland bill that the government was putting through.

The Democratic Unionist party (DUP) has long opposed any loosening of the law, although nationalist party Sinn Féin has relaxed its stance after Ireland voted in favour of abortion in a referendum earlier this year.

Abortion is normally subject to a free vote, but the law has been devolved in Northern Ireland for a century and the matter is theoretically reserved for Stormont, although the Northern Ireland assembly has not sat since the beginning of 2017.

Creasy had complained before the vote that Theresa May has been reluctant to intervene on the issue in Northern Ireland because of her reliance on the DUP to give her government a Commons majority.

“The absence of an assembly cannot be used as an excuse to ignore the human rights of the people of Northern Ireland … The question is whether the prime minister’s more concerned about the DUP than the damage human rights abuses do,” she said.

A supreme court ruling in June had indicated that Northern Ireland’s abortion laws were incompatible with human rights legislation, but judges declined to issue a final ruling because the case that had been brought before them did not involve an individual victim.

While England, Scotland and Wales have their own laws that legalise terminations, in Northern Ireland, the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act still applies, which criminalises any woman seeking an abortion or anybody helping them obtain one.

Creasy and McGinn’s amendment had the support of Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, half a dozen Conservatives including Heidi Allen and Tom Tugendhat, plus Norman Lamb for the Liberal Democrats and the Green party MP, Caroline Lucas.

On Tuesday, MPs voted to repeal the law via a separate backbench bill. The free vote on a 10-minute rule bill, put forward by Labour’s Diana Johnson, passed by 208 votes to 123, with one cabinet minister, Penny Mordaunt, voting in favour.

However, the Johnson bill will not become law because the government has signalled that it will not give it parliamentary time – while Wednesday’s amendment to the Northern Ireland bill could become law because it is attached to government legislation.

On Tuesday, Johnson’s bill was opposed by Fiona Bruce, a Conservative MP, who said: “Whatever members’ differing views on abortion, if we respect devolution, we should vote against this motion today.”

Bruce also argued that it was untimely, given that Brexit negotiations meant it was “such a sensitive time in relations between the Westminster government and the Northern Ireland administration”.


Dan Sabbagh

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Derry Girls join Northern Ireland abortion protest
Cast members march on Westminster to lobby secretary of state for change in law

Mattha Busby

26, Feb, 2019 @2:38 PM

Article image
MPs debate calls to liberalise abortion laws in Northern Ireland – as it happened
Rolling coverage of the day’s political developments as they happen

Andrew Sparrow

05, Jun, 2018 @4:11 PM

Article image
Northern Irish women win access to free abortions as May averts rebellion
Ministers announce funding for NI women to have abortions in England, in attempt to head off Tory revolt in Queen’s speech vote

Jessica Elgot and Henry McDonald

29, Jun, 2017 @4:53 PM

Article image
Northern Ireland abortion reforms 'a test of May's feminism'
Shami Chakrabarti calls on prime minister to negotiate with parties to relax laws

Pippa Crerar Deputy political editor

28, May, 2018 @12:27 PM

Article image
MPs to argue Northern Irish women have right to abortion on NHS
Cross-party MPs want amendment to Queen’s speech to act as warning to government over DUP pact

Jessica Elgot Political reporter

23, Jun, 2017 @7:22 AM

Article image
Stella Creasy’s abortion law campaign showed practical politics at its bestt | Helen Lewis
Courteous, attentive and largely free of partisan posturing, the debate on Northern Ireland’s law was a triumph of cross-party collaboration

Helen Lewis

10, Jun, 2018 @11:00 AM

Article image
Northern Irish doctors’ group to fight abortion pill prosecutions
Pro-choice organisation opposes medics being forced to report women to the police

Henry McDonald

11, Aug, 2019 @5:17 PM

Article image
Labour MPs to press May for Commons vote on Northern Ireland abortion ban
Diana Johnson to table bill aimed at forcing government into allowing proper Commons vote

Dan Sabbagh

21, Oct, 2018 @6:31 PM

Article image
Abortion figures prompt fresh calls for reform of Northern Irish law
Rights groups seek commitment from UK government as Theresa May holds talks with anti-abortion DUP

Amelia Gentleman

13, Jun, 2017 @10:38 AM

Article image
Stormont must act on abortion reform 'or Westminster will'
Equalities minister tells Northern Ireland politicians to take responsibility over issue

Jessica Elgot political correspondent

05, Jun, 2018 @6:26 PM