Labour pledge to force direct rule change in abortion laws ‘an abuse of power’

From left, Rupa Huq MP, Cat Smith MP, Ruairi Rowan of FPA, Grainne Teggart of Amnesty, Sharon Hodgson MP, and Owen Smith MP in Belfast yesterday
From left, Rupa Huq MP, Cat Smith MP, Ruairi Rowan of FPA, Grainne Teggart of Amnesty, Sharon Hodgson MP, and Owen Smith MP in Belfast yesterday

A “threat” by Labour to “impose” abortion reform on Northern Ireland in the absence of a Stormont Assembly would be an “abuse of power”, pro-life campaigners have said.

Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Smith led a delegation of Labour MPs in Belfast yesterday, where they met representatives of pro-choice organisations Amnesty International and the Family Planning Association.

Ahead of the meeting, Mr Smith said that while his party believes “this should be a decision that should be made in Stormont”, he pledged that “if power returns to Westminster, we will push the government to make progress on ensuring people in Northern Ireland have the same rights as those elsewhere in the United Kingdom”.

He also reaffirmed his party’s manifesto pledge to “work with the Northern Ireland Assembly to strengthen women’s rights to choose a safe abortion”.

While Amnesty International and the Family Planning Association welcomed Mr Smith’s pledge, pro-life groups have expressed outrage.

Liam Gibson, local development officer for the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, said: “Owen Smith’s threat to impose Britain’s liberal abortion regime on Northern Ireland displays an utter contempt for the basic principles of representative democracy.

“Labour does not organise in Northern Ireland and no one here voted for the party. So his claim that imposing the Abortion Act on the Province would be in line with Labour’s 2017 manifesto is no justification for what would simply be an abuse of power by Westminster politicians.”

Groups such as Christian Action Research and Education (CARE), the Iona Institute, and Life Northern Ireland expressed similar views.

However, Grainne Teggart, Northern Ireland campaigns manager for Amnesty, said: “We welcome the commitment of the Labour Party to ensuring women’s access to free, safe and legal abortion.

“Westminster must be ready to legislate for change on abortion if the Stormont talks fail.

“Devolution is no justification for the denial of women’s rights and it does not relieve the UK government of their responsibility to ensure that women’s right to abortion is upheld.”

Ruairi Rowan, senior advocacy officer for the sexual health charity FPA in Northern Ireland, said: “As we mark the centenary of the suffrage to some women, in Northern Ireland women continue to suffer daily discrimination and inequality under the Victorian legislation that controls their bodies.

“In 2018 women here are still governed by an abortion law that was decided by an all-male parliament, voted for by an all-male electorate. It’s time for this to change. Women have waited for far too long.”

However, Life Northern Ireland, a charity that offers care and support for pregnant mothers, described the comparison with the suffrage movement as “disingenuous”.

Spokesperson Marion Wood said: “We would remind Amnesty International and the FPA that Alice Paul, an American suffragist, feminist and women’s rights activist said abortion is ‘the ultimate exploitation of women’.”