MPs will be gvien a chance to vote on legalising abortion in Northern Ireland, after a cross party coalition of politicians launched a 10-Minute Rule bill to decriminalise women who end their own pregnancies.
Although they rarely make it into law, those behind the move hope the vote will step up pressure on the government for repeal.
The bill would remove the criminal provisions from the Offences Against the Persons Act 1861 that make abortion illegal except when there is a risk to the life of the mother or a serious risk to her physical or mental health.
In theory, anyone breaching the law could face life in jail. In practice, many women travel from Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK for legal abortions.
But until now, the government has rejected calls for repeal, arguing that abortion is a devolved issue that Stormont must decide. However, the Northern Ireland Assembly has not sat since January 2017.
Last year the UK government announced women from Northern Ireland may have free abortions in England and Wales.
In a Supreme Court case this summer, justices found that Northern Ireland’s law was incompatible with the right to respect for private and family life as guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights.
The mental health toll on women with fatal foetal abnormality is particularly harsh
MP Diana Johnson
Diana Johnson, the Labour MP behind the new vote, told The Independent that current legislation was outdated, and that from talking to doctors and women, she believed the province needed an updated law that didn’t criminalise women and accepted social attitudes had moved on.
“Abortion is a healthcare and human-rights issue. Women who have abortions are not criminals, and the law should not treat them as such," she said. “In Northern Ireland, prosecutions are a reality and this cannot continue.”
She added that it was wrong that abortion was outlawed even in cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormalities.
“The mental health toll on women with fatal foetal abnormality who have to continue the pregnancy knowing it will be a stillbirth is particularly harsh," she said.
It would leave us with no law whatsoever protecting mothers and their unborn children
Under retained powers, if Northern Ireland is in breach of international conventions, Karen Bradley, the Northern Ireland secretary, has the power to intervene, Ms Johnson said.
MPs backing the bill include Conservatives Dr Sarah Wollaston, Nicky Morgan, Anna Soubry and Crispin Blunt, Green Caroline Lucas, Lib Dem Norman Lamb, and Labour’s Stella Creasy.
In February, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women called on the government to legalise abortion in Northern Ireland.
In polls most Northern Irish people oppose criminalising women who end their own pregnancies, the MPs said.
The 10-Minute Rule bill would allow abortion to be regulated in the same way as other medical procedures. It would not change the time limits for abortion.
The bill applies to all the UK, although in Britain later legislation superseded the 1861 Act. It also introduces a new offence of using violence or the threat of violence to cause a woman to have a miscarriage.
Ms Johnson said it would bring Northern Ireland into line with some states in Australia, the US and much of Europe.
Ms Soubry added: “Abortion is a matter for women and their doctors, not the criminal justice system. I fully support the decriminalisation of abortion.”
Amnesty International, which has dubbed Northern Ireland’s law “dangerous and degrading” says police in Northern Ireland are cracking down on the use of abortion pills, “further limiting women’s options and forcing them into despair”.
However, anti-abortion campaigners in Northern Ireland condemned the “inconsiderate and undemocratic attack on unborn babies”.
Bernadette Smyth, of the Precious Life group, said: “It’s undemocratic for Westminster MPs to be debating what happens in Northern Ireland”.
Petitions with more than 15,000 signatures showed there was no will to scrap the ban, she said. “It would leave us with no law whatsoever protecting mothers and their unborn children.”
Most women with unplanned pregnancies who received counselling and support did not have an abortion, she said.
She pointed out that in 2016, the Northern Ireland Assembly voted against any change in the law.