LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Theresa May faced demands from ministers and lawmakers in her Conservative party to reform Northern Ireland’s highly restrictive abortion rules after neighboring Ireland’s vote to liberalize its laws.
Voters in Ireland, a once deeply Catholic nation, backed the change by two-to-one, a far higher margin than any opinion poll in the run up to the vote had predicted.
Penny Mordaunt, Britain’s women and equalities minister, said that the victory to legalize abortion should now bring change north of the Irish border.
“A historic and great day for Ireland and a hopeful one for Northern Ireland,” Mordaunt said. “That hope must be met.”
Northern Ireland has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe with even rape and fatal fetal abnormality not considered legal grounds for a termination. And unlike other parts of the United Kingdom, abortions are banned apart from when the life or mental health of the mother is in danger.
Since the collapse of a power sharing administration in Northern Ireland at the beginning of last year, British officials have been taking major decisions in the region.
But any moves to change the law could destabilize the British government by antagonizing the socially conservative Democratic Unionist Party, which May depends on for her parliamentary majority.
More than 130 members of Britain’s parliament, including lawmakers in the ruling Conservative party, are prepared to back an amendment to a new domestic violence bill to allow abortions in Northern Ireland, the Sunday Times newspaper reported.
Anne Milton, an education minister, on Sunday urged the prime minister to allow a free vote in parliament.
Sarah Wollaston, the chair of the health select committee and a lawmaker in May’s party, said she would support the proposed amendment and said Northern Ireland should at least be given a vote to decide.
A spokeswoman for May said changing the rules on abortion is a decision that should be taken by a devolved assembly and the government is working to revive the power-sharing agreement.
Northern Ireland’s elected assembly has the right to bring its abortion laws in line with the rest of Britain, but voted against doing so in February 2016 and the assembly has not sat since the devolved government collapsed in January 2017.
Reporting by Andrew MacAskill; Editing by Alexander Smith