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Monday, 22 October 2018

Call to scrap 157-year-old abortion ban in Northern Ireland

Written by Jennifer McKiernan

Westminster must scrap 157-year-old abortion laws to protect the rights of women in Northern Ireland, according to a Labour former minister.

Outdated abortion laws must be modernised to protect women, Hull North MP Diana Johnson has said, as she prepares to bring forward her Abortion Bill to the Commons on Tuesday.

Northern Ireland is still ruled by an 1861 Act threatening anyone performing abortions with life imprisonment, which was ruled as a breach of human rights by the Supreme Court this summer.

The ruling followed a landslide referendum vote to legalise abortion in the Republic of Ireland, which Ms Johnson (pictured) said means now is the right time to act.

Ms Johnson wants to remove the section of the 1867 Act that criminalises abortion and bring in her own, modernised Act in England and Wales, hoping Northern Ireland will consider following suit.

She also wants to make it a criminal offence for someone to force a non-consensual abortion "such as someone who is violent towards a pregnant woman or puts tablets in someone's drink" punishable by life imprisonment.

Ms Johnson told the Press Association: "It never seems to have been the right time to address the inequality in Northern Ireland, until now.

"The Irish abortion referendum has made the difference north and south of the border very stark.

"The 1861 Act is more than 150 years old - it is the oldest healthcare regulation in the country.

"Why should it be the case women, who could go to jail for life for seeking an abortion, could get a harsher sentence than her abuser or rapist?"

Ms Johnson cited a recent Amnesty International poll indicating 66% support for Westminster intervention on the issue and 65% support for decriminalising abortion in Northern Ireland as a reason to intervene in the controversial area.

"Westminster has a role to play in breaches of human rights in Northern Ireland," she insisted.

"I'm certainly not telling Northern Ireland what they need to put in place but if the courts are saying it's a breach of human rights to criminalise women for seeking abortion then we need to act.

"Westminster has always retained the ability to instruct departments on things like this where it is a human rights issue."

Ms Johnson also highlighted how the 1967 Act, which allowed women in England, Scotland and Wales to have an unwanted pregnancy terminated legally, was designed at a time where abortion was a surgical procedure.

Now, 80% of abortions are performed in the first 10 to 12 weeks using tablets, she said, and access to tablets is particularly important for women trapped in abusive relationships or living in isolated areas.

She said: "We need better regulations relevant to the internet age, not a 50-year-old Act designed for when abortion required surgery.

"Clearly there are some desperate women going on the internet we need to help.

"We need laws that are fit for purpose and having a vote on this will allow the Government to see what the strength of feeling is in the Commons and hopefully strengthen their resolve to act."

Former Liberal leader Lord Steel, who was the architect of the 1967 act, told the Press Association he was "happy to be on the record as supportive" of Ms Johnson's Bill because "it is much-needed".

Copyright (c) Press Association Ltd. 2018, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) David Mirzoeff / PA Wire.