LONDON, July 23 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - British and Irish parliamentarians have called for “urgent” reform to Northern Ireland’s highly restrictive abortion law after a surge in the number of women going abroad for abortions.
Abortion is permitted in Northern Ireland only if a woman’s life is in danger or there is a long-term or permanent risk to her mental or physical health. It is not permitted in cases of rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality.
Neighbouring Ireland voted in May to liberalise its laws, meaning British-ruled Northern Ireland is now the only part of the British Isles with such a restrictive abortion regime.
“Without urgent action, women and girls living in Northern Ireland will continue to be unable to access safe healthcare at home,” according to an open letter published in the Sunday Times newspaper, signed by more than 170 members of parliament (MPs).
The MPs urged the British government to repeal sections 58 and 59 in the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, which criminalise women who use medication or an instrument to cause an abortion.
In England, Wales and Scotland, women can legally have the procedure under the Abortion Act 1967, but that does not currently extend to Northern Ireland.
“This is the first and critical step to ending the treatment of British and Irish women living in Northern Ireland as second-class citizens, who do not enjoy the same access to healthcare as their counterparts do across these islands,” they said.
It is estimated that about three women travel from Northern Ireland to England for an abortion every day, while others risk prosecution by self-medicating with abortion pills.
Since the government launched a hotline in March to help Northern Irish women access abortion care in England it has been used by 342, including a 12-year-old girl, according to the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), which runs the line.
“The UK government cannot continue to absolve itself of its responsibility to UK citizens in Northern Ireland,” said Katherine O’Brien, a spokeswoman from BPAS, which released its March to May hotline figures on Sunday.
In 2017, a total of 919 Northern Irish women - or 17 women a week - went to England for abortion services, BPAS said.
Britain’s Supreme Court said in June that Northern Ireland’s strict abortion law was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.
But it said it did not have the power to make a formal declaration that the law should be changed.
Reporting by Lin Taylor @linnytayls, Editing by Claire Cozens; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian issues, conflicts, land and property rights, modern slavery and human trafficking, gender equality, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories