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Westminster should put in temporary measures to reform abortion laws in Northern Ireland

4 min read

We cannot wait for the Northern Irish Assembly to sit again to reform abortion laws. Westminster should put in temporary measures now, no matter what the Conservative leadership candidates say, writes Diana Johnson

We have learnt in recent days that both Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson are united on more than just Brexit. They have also committed to keeping the status quo in Northern Ireland on abortion and same sex marriage and believe that any change should be left to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Both would-be prime ministers have made it clear that, despite the devolved administration not having met for over two years, they oppose any change to the law by the UK Parliament.

We can all see these pronouncements for what they really are: made in the middle of an election, attempting to shore up DUP support for the next prime minister.

There is widespread public support for urgent reform, particularly in relation to the exceptionally cruel and outdated law covering access to abortion services in Northern Ireland.

The law on abortion in England, Wales and Northern Ireland is still based on a Victorian statue that punishes any women who procures an abortion or anyone who assists her with up to life imprisonment.

The 1967 Abortion Act allows abortion to take place in limited legally-defined circumstances, but it never applied to Northern Ireland where even victims of rape or incest have no right to abortion. A woman whose baby has a fatal foetal abnormality is forced to continue with the pregnancy and give birth – even if the baby is decomposing inside them. This is wrong.

It is now clear that there is an appetite in Westminster to see modernising reform of abortion law. We need a complete rethink to recognise changing attitudes about women in society, developments in women’s reproductive healthcare, and access through the internet to medication.

There is no place for the criminal law in what is essentially a healthcare matter between a woman and her doctor. Of course, decriminalisation does not mean deregulation and this medical procedure would still be subject to a range of clinical and professional regulations and laws.

'There is no place for the criminal law in what is essentially a healthcare matter between a woman and her doctor' 

MPs know that the human rights of women in Northern Ireland are currently being breached. This view is shared at the very top of government, including by the Secretary of State for Defence and Minister for Women and Equalities, Penny Mordaunt MP.

A recent challenge through the Supreme Court to the laws in Northern Ireland failed on a technicality, but a new case is making its way through the courts. This is being brought by Sarah Ewart, a woman who was forced to travel to the UK mainland for an abortion after her pregnancy was given a fatal foetal diagnosis. She is supported by Amnesty International.

Sarah Ewart says: “We shouldn’t have to fight through the courts to have our rights realised. Experiencing something as painful as I did and then having no option but to go through the ordeal of the courts is emotionally draining. Northern Ireland’s archaic abortion laws have left women like me suffering for far too long... We hope the government listens to women like me who have called on Westminster to legislate”.

The current arrangements for governing Northern Ireland in the absence of an assembly come to an end soon and Parliament will be asked again to agree a temporary fix.

One way forward could be for Parliament to agree to legislate now in the absence of a devolved assembly on both abortion and same sex marriage but include a ‘sunset clause’ for when the Northern Ireland Assembly is functioning again and able to produce its own legislation within the established legal framework of human rights.

Now could be the time for Westminster politicians to do what is right for all those women in Northern Ireland, uphold their human rights and ensure they can access reproductive healthcare fit for this century without having to travel to the UK mainland.

This would also respect devolution by making clear that any arrangements set in place now are there only until the devolved government is able to meet again – whenever that might be.

Diana Johnson is Labour MP for Hull North

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