Government obliged to legalise abortion in Northern Ireland, says Labour MP

Stella Creasy backed by 60 cross-party MPs calling for human rights to be upheld

The Labour MP Stella Creasy is leading another attempt to extend access to abortion to Northern Ireland, tabling an amendment arguing that the government is obliged to do this to comply with human rights obligations.

Up to 60 MPs from across different parties were expected to co-sign the amendment, according to the Walthamstow MP, who has tried in the past to change Northern Ireland’s notoriously strict abortion laws.

The 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, which makes obtaining or helping somebody obtain an abortion a criminal offence, is still applicable in Northern Ireland.

Last year the Republic of Ireland liberalised its abortion laws, but in Northern Ireland the long suspension of the devolved executive and assembly has obstructed any plans to do the same.

Creasy’s amendment would oblige ministers in Westminster to comply with their human rights obligation in Northern Ireland in relation to abortion, and thereby change a law that currently risks heavy jail sentences for women who have an abortion or medical staff who help them.

It notes that last year the UN committee on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women found the abortion laws meant women were “subjected to grave and systematic violations of rights through being compelled to either travel outside Northern Ireland to procure a legal abortion or to carry their pregnancy to term”.

Last year about 1,000 women from Northern Ireland travelled to England or Wales for an abortion.

The 1967 Abortion Act which liberalised the law in England, Scotland and Wales never extended to Northern Ireland. The region permitted abortion only if a woman’s life was at risk or if there was a risk of permanent and serious damage to her mental or physical health.

The story of Sarah Ewart, who travelled to England for an abortion after being told her baby would not survive outside the womb, galvanised change.

The legislation brought in by Westminster, which takes effect on Tuesday, decriminalises abortion. After consultations, the UK government will have to put in place regulations for abortion services by next April; until then, women will be offered free transport and accommodation to access abortion services in England.

In England, Scotland and Wales, the limit on abortions except in cases of fatal foetal abnormality or risk to life is 24 weeks. But anti-abortion campaigners in Northern Ireland claim that the change could mean abortion up to 28 weeks.

Both Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, who are competing to replace Theresa May as prime minister, have ruled out intervention from Westminster to change the law in Northern Ireland, prompting pro-choice campaigners to accuse them of pandering to religious fundamentalists in the Democratic Unionist party.

Earlier this week the women and equalities minister, Penny Mordaunt, said rapid action was needed.

Mordaunt, speaking to the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, said: “I think paucity of care that women have endured in Northern Ireland is the most appalling thing and it must change.”

Creasy’s proposed amendment will be added to a bill due in the Commons next week concerned with amending budgets and planned elections for the Stormont assembly, which has been suspended amid political deadlock since January 2017.

Another Labour MP, Conor McGinn, is planning to seek to target the same bill with a cross-party amendment aimed at changing the law in Northern Ireland on same-sex marriage. Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK that does not have equal marriage.

Those signed up to Creasy’s amendment include MPs from Labour, the Liberal Democrats, independents, Conservatives, the Green party and the Scottish National party.

Creasy said: “According to the UN, women in Northern Ireland face ‘grave and systematic’ human rights violations because we treat them as second-class citizens and deny them their basic human right not to be forced to continue an unwanted pregnancy.

“It’s time this government stopped hiding behind devolution to defend this situation and please the DUP. Again – not just what I think: the United Nations says they can’t use devolution as an excuse for this disgraceful situation.

“With women facing jail now in Northern Ireland and no sign of an assembly anytime soon at Stormont, this vote is a chance for parliament to uphold our human rights obligations and treat every woman in the UK with equal respect by ensuring they can access a safe, legal and local abortion if they want to do so.”


Peter Walker Political correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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