Abortion: Radical liberalisation of NI law backed by huge majority as MPs

The tellers announcing the result of the vote in the House of Commons
The tellers announcing the result of the vote in the House of Commons
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MPs have again overwhelmingly agreed to radical changes to Northern Ireland’s abortion law which would move it from being the most restrictive law in the UK to being the most liberal.

Last week an amendment to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill by Labour MP Stella Creasy received huge support from MPs and passed the Commons before going to the Lords where on Wednesday night peers amended the proposal in several areas.

Today that returned to the Commons where MPs again expressed clear support – by 328 votes to 65 – for fundamental changes to Northern Ireland’s criminal law which would stop any form of abortion being treated as a criminal offence.

However, there was again criticism of the rushed way in which the change is being made due to the fact that it has come about through an amendment to a technical bill about delaying elections in Northern Ireland which is being fast-tracked through the Commons under emergency procedures.

Because the Commons also passed its own amendment today – relating to Brexit – the bill will now return to the House of Lords for that to be considered before coming back to the Commons, probably at the start of next week.

If the bill is passed again by the Lords, only the return of Stormont by October or a court case could derail the changes for which pro-choice activists have been campaigning for decades.

Unlike the House of Lords, which spent the best part of two days debating some of the complexities of how to change the law in a way which does not extend the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland, the Commons yesterday spent little time discussing abortion.

Due to the government rushing the bill through the Commons, MPs were yesterday given only one hour to discuss the entire bill - which encompasses everything from the Stormont talks to legalising same-sex marriage, moves towards reform of the libel law and a pension for Troubles victims.

Much of that time was taken up with a discussion about the Brexit amendment, leaving little consideration of the implications of the abortion amendments.

DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds accused MPs of deciding that “the end justifies the means” in how they were legislating for Northern Ireland.

He said: “What we see is the setting aside of every parliamentary norm, every norm about consultation, every norm about the principle of devolution” in order to speed through the legalisation of abortion.

The North Belfast MP said that the Lords had made the original abortion amendment “much more radical” and “makes abortion legal for absolutely any reason, including gender and disability, up until a legal presumption of 28 weeks”.

He said that the changes would create “a very, very serious situation”.

Under amendments passed by the House of Lords at 1.30am this morning, the abortion changes will be delayed from January to March 2020.

Tory MP Fiona Bruce, an opponent of the changes, said that the amendments meant that Northern Ireland would have “the most permissive abortion law in the whole of the British Isles”.

Pro choice MP Diana Johnson agreed with that characterisation of the new law for Northern Ireland but said that should now be extended to the rest of the UK.

The Labour MP said that the decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland meant it would now have a “more liberal” law than in England and Wales and women in England and Wales remained subject to the criminal law in situations such as buying abortion pills online

She asked the government if women in England and Wales would be treated “as fairly as in Northern Ireland”.

Patrick Corrigan, Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland director, said that the abortion and same-sex marriage votes represented “a giant leap forward for human rights”.

He added: “We’re now within touching distance of seeing this legislation passed into law and having our rights realised.”

Amnesty International, which has been to the forefront of the campaigns for both same-sex marriage and abortion, said that the votes in the Commons represented “a giant leap forward for human rights”.

Amnesty’s Northern Ireland director, Patrick Corrigan, said: “Equal marriage and abortion reform are now firmly fixed within the Northern Ireland Bill, and will become law once it’s passed its final stage in Parliament.

“We’re now within touching distance of seeing this legislation passed into law and having our rights realised.”

Commons’ Speaker John Bercow yesterday grouped 17 amendments together – including abortion, same-sex marriage and multiple other issues – meaning that there was only one vote by MPs which overwhelmingly passed all those issues.

The pro-life group Life denounced the development as “one of the most disgraceful assaults on democracy against the people of Northern Ireland” and a “mad opportunistic rush by allies of the abortion lobby to exploit the current absence of the Northern Ireland Assembly to bully the people of Northern Ireland into accepting abortion”.

It urged the restoration of Stormont so that the changes can be blocked.

Belfast woman Sarah Ewart, who has been campaigning for six years against the Province’s abortion laws, watched the proceedings from her home yesterday.

She wept, and was embraced by Grainne Teggart from Amnesty International who supported her campaign, as the results of the vote was announced.

Ms Ewart travelled to England in October 2013 for a termination after being denied one in Northern Ireland, despite doctors saying her baby would not survive outside the womb.

She said: “I feel massively relieved, I feel like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders, this has been six years we have been trying to get some change and finally Westminster are going to act and give women here the healthcare we deserve.

“This is healthcare and we should be getting it like the rest of the UK in our own hospitals with our own consultants. What has happened today is consultants will be able to do their job properly and give us the healthcare that we need.”