The UK House of Commons voted on 9 July by 332 for and 99 against to extend access to abortion to Northern Ireland, bringing them in line with the rest of the UK. A similarly large majority passed an amendment allowing same-sex marriage. The motion passed says that the government must lift the ban in the province if a new Northern Ireland executive is not in place by 21 October 2019, something no one thinks will happen.
The results were greeted ecstatically by campaigners and welcomed by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. Bills on both amendments must still be drafted but it seems no matter what the fate of the rest of the bill as a whole, which had more than 20 amendments on different issues, these two amendments will be honoured, as ministers have promised to respect the results. The law could even be changed later this year. It will have taken only 52 years for the British 1967 Abortion Act to be extended to Northern Ireland.
This amendment removes responsibility from the shoulders of the NI Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the party in the forefront of stopping these changes for many years now. At least one journalist thinks this may be a relief for them, since withholding these rights has been deemed a human rights violation by both CEDAW and the UK Supreme Court, which must be addressed. Now, in spite of their continuing dependence on the DUP vote on other issues, it looks like the UK government has accepted they must ensure these rights are delivered.
15,000 NI people have signed a petition opposing the change. But Grainne Taggard, campaigns manager for Amnesty UK NI, said: “Successive opinion polls and studies have consistently shown that the majority of the Northern Irish public are in favour of abortion law reform, including decriminalisation.” For example, a recent Northern Ireland Life & Times survey found that 70% of the public said they are pro-choice. “The vote in the Commons last week reflects the will of the Northern Ireland public and it is right that Westminster brings about long overdue change,” she added.
The vote on the bill is scheduled for 18 July. We are holding our breath.
SOURCES: The Guardian, by Peter Walker, Rory Carroll, 9 July 2019 ; The Independent, Benjamin Kentish, 9 July 2019 ; Irish News (photo above), by John Manley, 9 July 2019 ; RTE, 15 July 2019 ; PHOTO, by Charles McMullan/Getty Images