The equalities minister has urged Northern Ireland’s politicians to take action to liberalise abortion law or risk Westminster stepping in.
After a highly charged debate in the House of Commons on Tuesday, Penny Mordaunt tweeted that the message from Westminster MPs to Northern Ireland’s leaders on decriminalising abortion was, “if you don’t, we will”.
Earlier, the Northern Ireland secretary, Karen Bradley, gave her personal backing for reforming the region’s tough abortion law, but cautioned against Westminster taking the matter into its own hands.
Bradley, who was among the Conservative frontbenchers who welcomed the opportunity to debate the issue, said abortion was a “matter of conscience” and would always be subject to a free vote in parliament.
“There are a number of voices calling for reform, including women and girls affected,” she said. “But it is also clear to me that there is no consensus on what that reform should be, even among those who want to see change.”
She said acting to reform the law from Westminster would “disenfranchise 1.3 million citizens of the United Kingdom,” and said the focus had to be restoring the devolved executive at Stormont.
“That is why the government, like its predecessors, believes that the best forum to debate and resolve these and many other matters is a locally elected Northern Ireland assembly, so the government’s priority remains to urgently re-establish strong, inclusive, devolved government at the earliest opportunity.”
However Mordaunt’s message, that “with authority comes responsibility”, suggested some senior figures in government were keen to see action.
The emergency debate was called by the Labour MP Stella Creasy, who has proposed a repeal to parts of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, which made it a crime for any woman to cause her own abortion. The 1967 Abortion Act exempted women in England, Wales and Scotland, but the OAPA restrictions continue to apply in Northern Ireland.
Creasy and her supporters believe they can force all parts of the UK to reconsider their abortion laws by repealing sections of the 1861 act that criminalise abortion, a move backed by several key women’s charities, including the British Pregnancy Advisory Service.
The Walthamstow MP said her proposal would respect devolution, telling MPs: “The time limit [on terminations] would not change, nor would the important role of medics in this matter.
“I respect and recognise that some people do not consider abortion a human right and so think a criminal approach is the right response, but I recognise many more agree it’s not that which worries them, but the constitutional issues that are at stake.
“Let me reassure those MPs who want to uphold the role of devolved assemblies that repealing OAPA would not write a particular abortion law for anyone, but it would require them to act.”
Creasy said ministers should commit to allowing parliament to vote on this issue.
The proposal has high-profile supporters on the Conservative benches, including the chair of the women and equalities committee, Maria Miller.
“We need a change,” Miller said. “I think it’s wrong that women in Northern Ireland don’t have the same access to abortion as my constituents do”
However, she said she did not back Creasy’s bid to repeal OAPA, saying it would have a “profound impact for the whole of the United Kingdom ... the debate today is about the situation for women in Northern Ireland and we need to focus on that.”
Miller, Amber Rudd and Justine Greening met Theresa May on Monday to express their support for change in Northern Ireland, warning the prime minister of growing Tory support for a referendum, or for extending the 1967 act to Northern Ireland.
May told MPs at the meeting she was not prepared to overrule Stormont, and said the issue was sensitive in both Northern Ireland and the Conservative party.
Bradley paid tribute to Creasy’s “passionate and moving contribution” and said she was listening to the arguments.
In an emotional speech in the chamber, the Conservative MP Heidi Allen said she had had a termination due to ill health, and believed “passionately in choice, equality and a woman’s right to determine her own destiny”.
“Because I have been there, I am making it my business,” she said. “I was ill when I made the incredibly hard decision to have a termination. I was having seizures every day. I was not even able to control my own body, let alone care for a new life.
“Are you telling me that, in a civilised world, rape, incest or a foetus so badly deformed it could never live, is not sufficient grounds for a woman to decide for herself? No. Enough.”
However, the Democratic Unionist chief whip, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, said 100,000 people were alive in Northern Ireland because it was exempt from the 1967 act. “I am proud of that pro-life position, I am proud of the fact that there are so many people alive in Northern Ireland today because we have a law that respects the rights of both women and of the unborn child and we will maintain that position.”
The supreme court will rule on Thursday whether Northern Ireland’s abortion law breaches women’s rights by not allowing abortions in cases of sexual crime and fatal foetal abnormalities.