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'How long must women in Northern Ireland wait for change?' - UK MPs debate abortion laws

An MP told the House of Commons that UK laws “put abortion in the same category as homicide, child stealing, or rape”.

Updated 4.15pm

THE HOUSE OF Commons has discussed the UK’s abortion laws – with a focus on Northern Ireland.

Last night, Westminster MPs voted overwhelmingly in favour of holding a debate on the power and responsibility the UK government has to liberalise abortion laws.

Today saw Labour’s Stella Creasy open a discussion on the repeal of an 1861 law that makes abortion illegal, but from which England, Wales and Scotland have long been exempt.

The debate saw interventions from DUP MPs including Ian Paisley Junior, who said that the UK should not change its laws “in the heat of the moment” in the aftermath of the Irish vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment.

The party’s Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said that the DUP, the only Northern Irish party sitting in Westminster, is explicitly pro-life and would not stand over a situation where Northern Ireland had “one of the most liberal abortion regimes in Europe”.

He said that while some people said he was not connected to his constituents, he has been returned to the Commons six times and said that the North’s abortion laws were upheld “across the divide”.

“100,000 people are alive in Northern Ireland today because we did not accept abortion. I am proud of that fact. We will maintain that position.”

However, the independent MP for North Down Sylvia Hermon called on the Commons to change the UK’s laws. She agreed with Northern Secretary Karen Bradley that “change takes time”, but asked for a focus on the women of the North who may now need to travel for abortions.

I ask you to think about the number of women who are compelled to go leave Northern Ireland to go to Scotland, to go to England and who may, in future times, go to the Republic of Ireland. For those women who access online pills which are desperately dangerous. What is the Secretary saying to them? How long are we going to have to wait for change?

Bradley said that she wanted to see reform in the North but said it was a matter for the Northern Assembly – which she is committed to seeing the reestablishment of.

Bradley indicated that Prime Minister Theresa May supported reform in the north and welcomed Ireland’s result, but did not say when, or even if, MPs would be able to vote on the matter.

OAPA

Creasy 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 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’.”

British Prime Minister Theresa May has said up until now that abortion is a matter for the devolved Stormont Assembly in Belfast, which has been suspended for a year and a half due to a dispute between the DUP and Sinn Féin over the cash-for-ash scandal.

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Ireland abortion laws People attend a People Before Profit protest calling of for provision of Abortion in Northern Ireland, at Belfast City Hall. Source: Niall Carson

Since Ireland’s landslide vote in favour of Repealing the Eighth Amendment, and liberalising Ireland’s abortion laws, the focus has shifted to similar strict abortion laws in the North.

Following the outcome of the referendum, DUP leader Arlene Foster said that her party was “taking note” of the results (the DUP is a pro-life party).

Foster also said that Sinn Féin supporters have contacted her to say they will be voting for unionist party candidates because of their abortion stance.

May’s Conservative government relies on support from the DUP to hold a majority in the British parliament.

- with reporting from AFP and Gráinne Ní Aodha

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