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Tory ministers pile pressure on Theresa May over Northern Ireland abortion ban

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Five Tory ministers and a Conservative vice-chair have broken ranks with Theresa May to back a House of Commons move to make abortion legal in Northern Ireland.

The group were among a total of 208 MPs to vote in favour of a backbench MP’s bid to remove criminal liability from women consenting to a termination.

With their support, against 123 MPs who were opposed, a private member’s bill presented by Labour’s Diana Johnson cleared its first Commons hurdle on Tuesday.

Ms Johnson’s bill is designed to repeal parts of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, which continues to be the basis of an abortion ban in Northern Ireland.

Although the Victorian-era legislation is still on the statue book in England, Wales and Scotland, an amendment passed in 1967 provides for abortion on medical grounds in those countries.

This does not apply in Northern Ireland; but pressure has grown for a change in law following the Republic of Ireland’s historic referendum decision earlier this year to repeal their own abortion ban.

Diana Johnson
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Labour’s Diana Johnson is pushing for abortion to be legalised in Northern Ireland

Among 15 Conservative MPs to back Ms Johnson’s bill on Tuesday were Home Office minister Victoria Atkins, sports minister Tracey Crouch, health minister Caroline Dinenage, transport minister Jo Johnson, and Conservative Party vice-chair Chris Skidmore.

The most eye-catching support came from International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt, who also sits in cabinet as women and equalities minister.

The Tory ministers’ support for Ms Johnson’s bill puts them at odds with Mrs May’s position.

Despite her personal belief women “should be able to access safe, legal abortion”, the prime minister has repeatedly stressed her preference for the issue to be dealt with by a devolved administration in Northern Ireland.

There has been no executive at Stormont since January last year following the collapse of a power-sharing deal.

Mrs May has faced claims she is reluctant to act at Westminster on abortion laws in Northern Ireland due to her reliance on the DUP, who are fiercely opposed to legalisation, to prop up her government.

However, she has raised the hopes of campaigners by stating any votes on abortion would continue to be treated as a conscience issue as they have in the past, and so would not be whipped by party officials.








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June – Abortion in NI: PM stuck between Tories and DUP

Ms Johnson’s bill is listed to return for a second reading on 23 November, although it is unlikely to become law in its current form without government support or sufficient parliamentary time.

During a debate as she presented her bill, the Hull North MP described to MPs how Northern Ireland’s 157-year-old laws are “one of the harshest abortion regimes in the world”, without recourse to abortion even in cases of rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality.

Tory MP Fiona Bruce opposed the bill, prompting the Commons vote, and told MPs: “Whatever members’ differing views on abortion, if we respect devolution we should vote against this motion today.

“It proposes far-reaching changes in abortion law not only for England and Wales but also for Northern Ireland, where abortion has been respected as a devolved matter since 1921.

“Indeed it would set a dangerous constitutional precedent of interference and it’s not only unconstitutional, it’s untimely.

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“At such a sensitive time in relations between the Westminster government and the Northern Ireland administration, it would completely undermine the substance and spirit of the Good Friday Agreement.”

Earlier this month, opinion polls revealed a majority of people across the UK want abortion to be decriminalised in Northern Ireland.

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