Abortion campaigners target Sajid Javid over Northern Ireland

Pro-choice MPs seek to put down amendment to grant right to access terminations

Sajid Javid will come under pressure from a crossbench group of MPs to bring forward a bill that would allow reformers to decriminalise abortion in Northern Ireland.

More than 30 MPs have pledged to send the home secretary written questions on Monday demanding the domestic abuse bill be brought before parliament by the autumn. This would allow pro-choice MPs to put down an amendment that would give women in Northern Ireland the right to access terminations.

Calls for a shakeup of Northern Ireland’s strict anti-abortion laws have been growing since voters in the Republic of Ireland ditched a constitutional curb on the procedures in a landmark referendum last month.

Theresa May faces a headache over the issue because the government depends on the support of 10 Democratic Unionist party MPs, who strongly oppose any change to Northern Ireland’s strict abortion laws.

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.

MPs are targeting Javid, who is yet to comment on the issue, as they seek to allow parliament to hold a free vote on whether to repeal sections 58 and 59 of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act.

Supreme court judges last week recommended repealing the legislation to address the breach in the human rights of Northern Irish women caused by the failure to provide access to abortion services.

The MPs putting questions to Javid include the Conservative health select committee chairwoman, Sarah Wollaston, the Liberal Democrat deputy leader, Jo Swinson, the Green party co-leader Caroline Lucas and the Conservative former minister Ed Vaizey.

The Labour MP Stella Creasy plans to table an amendment to the bill aimed at equalising access across the UK and reducing the need for women from Northern Ireland to travel to England to access help.

“It is clear there’s a majority across parliament who want to see this legislation which criminalises women who seek an abortion repealed, yet without this legislation being brought forward to parliament, an amendment can’t be tabled,” she said.

“The government won’t give a date, so now MPs across parties are tabling questions demanding the home secretary set out the bill timetable. Without this, we face the prospect of a rape victim having to give evidence about the damage this legislation does to women’s rights before the government is forced to act,” she said.

Campaign organisations including Bpas, the London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign, Nupas, FPA, Amnesty International, Together for Yes and Alliance for Choice are working together to call for the decriminalisation of abortion across the UK.

Last week, supreme court judges said Northern Ireland’s abortion law is incompatible with human rights legislation, but rejected a challenge brought by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission on technical grounds.

The prime minister continued to resist calls to intervene in Northern Ireland’s affairs and insisted change was a matter for the devolved government there, which has not met for more than a year.

The domestic abuse bill, which is out for public consultation, is a flagship piece of legislation for the prime minister.

A government spokesperson said: “We want to see devolved government in Northern Ireland restored, so that locally elected, democratically accountable politicians can debate fundamental changes to policy on abortion, and the people of Northern Ireland have a direct say in the process.”


Rajeev Syal

The GuardianTramp

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