It is time to end the near total ban on abortions in Northern Ireland
Liberal Democrat spokesperson for Work and Pensions, Christine Jardine MP calls on the Northern Ireland Secretary to allow MPs the chance in Parliament to legislate for a change in the law governing abortions in Northern Ireland.
Twenty-eight women leave Northern Ireland every week, to travel to the rest of the UK for an abortion. Not because it is their choice to come here, but because they do not have the same rights to a medical termination as women in the rest of the UK
That is why I joined twenty seven other women to walk, with suitcases, to the Northern Ireland Office this week. The cases were filled with a 62,000 signatures petition calling on the Conservative Government to decriminalise abortion in Northern Ireland.
As a Scottish Liberal Democrat MP I believe passionately in devolution. No party has campaigned as hard, or as consistently, for devolution over the decades as the Liberal Democrats.
One fundamental reason is that devolution can provide a health service that adapts to needs of a community, an education system where parents have a real say in how their children learn, and a transport system that works for everyone.
What devolution does not mean, however, is that the national Government gets to abdicate responsibility for protecting the human rights of its citizens. Sadly that is exactly what the Conservative Government is doing. Women who live in Northern Ireland are being denied the same human rights as those of us in the rest of the UK.
This is not simply my opinion. Both the United Nations and the Supreme Court said last year that the human rights of women in Northern Ireland were being violated by abortion laws that are the most restrictive in the whole of Europe. That is why I am have been working with Amnesty International, and MPs from across the House, to end this injustice.
I am calling on Karen Bradley, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, to allow MPs to be given the chance in Parliament to legislate for a change in the law. There is no excuse for the Conservatives to keep ignoring the voices of those women. The reason the Tories give for not legislating to change abortion law is that it is for the Northern Ireland Assembly to do so.
Yet that devolved authority collapsed two years ago and for more than a year the Tories have done nothing to try and restore the institution.
In fact, every time the Liberal Democrats suggest in the House of Commons that an independent mediator be appointed to help resolve the collapse, they reject the suggestion. The real reason, of course, is the DUP, their allies who prop up their failing Government.
The DUP is opposed to any reform of abortion law. But what is the point of a Government if it is more concerned with staying in power than ensuring the basic human rights of its citizens? And this is not just a hypothetical or ideological question.
Women in Northern Ireland are being harmed by the current laws. Women there who have been raped and become pregnant as a result are not allowed an abortion.
Women who are happily expecting a child but find out the foetus has a fatal foetal abnormality are not allowed an abortion. Women who just cannot be pregnant are not allowed an abortion.
All of these women face the trauma of having to travel to seek the medical care they need.
The law which forces them to travel because abortion in Northern is currently illegal date back more than a century, to before women had the vote. They date back to the Offences against the Person Act 1861. The maximum sentence is life.
Abortion is only permitted when there is a risk to the life of the mother, or a serious risk to her physical or mental health. In such an instance, women can have the termination in an NHS or private clinic in Northern Ireland.
Surely it is time we brought the law in Northern Ireland into the 21st century?
The time for change is now. Northern Ireland cannot be left behind as the only part of the UK, the only part of the island of Ireland, and the only part of Europe with a near total ban on abortion.
It’s 2019 - time we had laws that respect and value women’s lives.
Christine Jardine is the Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West
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