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MPs to hold debate on Northern Ireland abortion laws

Yes campaigners hold posters calling for British-ruled Northern Ireland to liberalise its strict abortion laws, as campaigners wait for the official result in the Irish abortion referendum vote last month. (Photo by Paul FAITH/AFP)

BRITISH MPs will hold an emergency debate on reforming abortion laws on Tuesday (5) amid increasing pressure to lift the ban in Northern Ireland.

The House of Commons will discuss the repeal of an 1861 law that makes abortion illegal, but from which England, Wales and Scotland have long been exempt.

The debate will have no legal impact but, having already attracted the support of some government ministers, will be seen as a clear show of support for change.

It follows last month’s referendum in Ireland on legalising abortion, and comes just two days before Britain’s Supreme Court rules Thursday on whether Northern Ireland’s ban contravenes human rights legislation.

British Prime Minister Theresa May insists abortion is a matter for the devolved government in Belfast, which is currently suspended due to a dispute between the two main power-sharing parties.

But critics believe her position is complicated by her own government’s reliance on Northern Ireland’s socially conservative Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

Opposition Labour MP Stella Creasy, who secured Tuesday’s debate, said MPs had a duty to repeal the regressive elements of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act (OAPA) that made abortion illegal.

“OAPA is over 150 years old. It puts abortion in the same category as homicide, destroying or damaging a building with the use of gunpowder, child stealing, rape or defilement of women,” she told MPs on Monday.

She added: “By repealing OAPA, we – as the UK parliament – can show women across the UK we trust them all with their own healthcare, wherever they live.

“I ask members to stand up with me and join in saying ‘this is the 21st century’.”

Unlike in mainland Britain, abortion is illegal in Northern Ireland except when a woman’s life is at risk or there is a permanent or serious danger to her mental or physical health.