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Wed, 15 July 2020

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Ministers join bid to scrap Northern Ireland abortion ban as it clears first Commons hurdle

Ministers join bid to scrap Northern Ireland abortion ban as it clears first Commons hurdle

Emilio Casalicchio

3 min read

A bid to legalise abortion in Northern Ireland has passed its first Commons hurdle after a string of ministers joined other MPs to force a vote on the controversial issue.


MPs voted by 208 to 123 in favour of a Ten Minute Rule Bill by Labour MP Diana Johnson to move to the next stage of the parliamentary process.

Five serving members of the Government backed the bid, including International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt, Sports Minister Tracey Crouch, Health Minister Caroline Dinenage, Home Office Minister Victoria Atkins and Universities Minister Jo Johnson. Tory vice-chair Chris Skidmore also threw his weight behind the plans.

The move risks ramping up tensions between the Government and DUP, which props up Theresa May in her minority administration and is vehemently anti-abortion.

During the debate, Hull North MP Ms Johnson argued the current abortion law in Northern Ireland is out of date since it was passed in 1861.

She said there should be “no hard border in the Irish Sea when it comes to human rights” and argued Westminster should address "one of the harshest abortion regimes in the world" while Stormont is in deadlock.

"It's time to remove a Victorian, misogynistic stigma from our abortion laws," she told MPs.

"My aim is simple: Women able to choose what happens to their own bodies, confident, not criminalised, supported, not stigmatised, women able to access professional advice and medical care that is regulated effectively."

The province's assembly has not sat for more than a year after it collapsed over a renewable energy scandal.

Tory MP Fiona Bruce spoke up against the bill, arguing MPs risked setting a “dangerous constitutional precedent of interference”.

"Whatever members views on abortion, if we respect devolution we should vote against this amendment today," she said.

"It proposes far-reaching changes in abortion law, not only for England and Wales, but for Northern Ireland where abortion has been respected as a devolved matter since 1921."

And she said women were more likely to be forced into abortion if the bill were to be passed - an unlikely scenario since it does not currently have government backing.

The bill was the first time MPs have had a chance to vote on the controversial issue since a referendum repealed the abortion ban in the Republic of Ireland. 

Meanwhile, two other MPs have tabled an amendment to the Northern Ireland Bill calling on the Government to repeal the abortion rules in Northern Ireland.

A spokesperson for the UK government said: “This legislation is required to provide the Northern Ireland civil service with the certainty and clarity they need to continue to deliver public services in Northern Ireland.

"Amendments will be considered by the Commons in the normal way.”

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