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Bill legalizing abortion in Northern Ireland passes UK House of Commons


Introduced by Labour MP, it is unlikely to advance without government's backing

Six months after Ireland’s referendum cleared the way for abortion to be legalized, there is a move afoot to legalize abortion in Northern Ireland.

This week, a bill to scrap the 1861 Offenses Against the Persons Act, which made abortion illegal in the UK except when there is a risk to the life or health of the mother, passed in the British House of Commons on its first reading by 208 votes to 123.

The bill, which would decriminalize abortion across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, was introduced by Labour MP Diana Johnson under Parliament’s ten-minute rule. It has been scheduled for a second reading on November 23.

Ten Minute Rule bills are a type of private members’ bill that are introduced in the House of Commons. The rule allows a backbench MP to make his or her case for a new bill in a speech lasting up to ten minutes.

But the BBC reported that the bill is unlikely to become law in its current form without government backing.

It is one of several UK parliamentary attempts this week to change the law on abortion in Northern Ireland while its own devolved Parliament is suspended.

The 1967 Abortion Act in England and Wales provided for exemptions to the 1861 Act, enabling legal abortions, but it has never applied in Northern Ireland.

Addressing the House of Commons, Johnson said the aim of her bill is “to stop women facing the criminal courts for decisions about their own bodies.”

“The law needs updating to represent the changing attitudes in our society,” she said.

But Conservative MP Fiona Bruce opposes the bill, saying it should be up to Northern Ireland to change its abortion law “as, when and if they want to.”

Prime Minister Theresa May’s office also has taken the position that abortion is a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive and best decided by “locally accountable” politicians.

Baroness O’Loan wrote in the Catholic Herald that Johnson’s bill “would have the effect of introducing radical changes to abortion practice in England and Wales, and would impose abortion on Northern Ireland. If these proposals were successful, we would see one the most extreme abortion regimes in the world introduced right across England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The Herald, in a separate article, said that Ten Minute Rule motions rarely become law, but “there are fears the abortion lobby could use it to build momentum for a serious attempt to change the law later this year.”

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