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Now PM May under pressure to reform abortion law in Northern Ireland

The minority May government is in office with the support of the Northern Ireland-based Democratic Unionist Party, which is strongly opposed to abortion.

world Updated: May 29, 2018 00:14 IST
Prasun Sonwalkar
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May(AFP File)

Prime Minister Theresa May is facing increasing pressure from her Conservative Party and the opposition Labour to reform abortion law in Northern Ireland, days after Ireland voted overwhelmingly in a referendum to change its strict laws.

The minorityMay government is in office with thesupport of the Northern Ireland-based Democratic Unionist Party, which is strongly opposed to abortion. Northern Ireland has stricter laws on abortion compared to the rest of the United Kingdom.

Downing Street’s initial view is that any change to the law must be done by the Northern Ireland Assembly and not by Parliament in Westminster, since the issue is a “devolved matter”, meaning it falls within the domain of the assembly (similar to a state subject in India).

DUP leader Arlene Foster has already remarked that Ireland’s referendum result would have no impact on the law in Northern Ireland: "The legislation governing abortion is a devolved matter and it is for the Northern Ireland Assembly to debate and decide such issues."

But the assembly has not been functioning for the last 18 months and there is no local government due to differences between the two main local parties, DUP and Sinn Fein. Several Conservative and Labour MPs want the law to be reformed in Westminster.

The UK Abortion Act of 1967 was not extended to Northern Ireland, and abortion remains illegal there unless the life or mental health of the mother is at risk. Fatal foetal abnormalities and conceptions by rape or incest are not grounds for termination.

After Friday’s referendum in Ireland, Northern Ireland is the only place in the UK and most of Europe where terminations are outlawed apart from the most exceptional circumstances, and most politicians in Northern Ireland – Catholic and Protestant – do not favour reform.

Supporting reform in Northern Ireland after the vote in Ireland, The Guardian said in an editorial: “The overwhelming victory for repeal shows an appetite for change which should be recognised in Northern Ireland too.

“The implications of the Irish referendum vote will be felt around the world. The most immediate effect must be in Northern Ireland: five Conservative women who have all been ministers for women and equality are urging Theresa May to override the DUP and significantly relax abortion laws there.

“The province’s absurdly strict law means rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormalities are not seen as valid reasons for termination. However, Ireland will now be looking to make an abortion law that reflects the 21st century – and so should the United Kingdom as a whole.”