Northern Ireland

UK government 'must act on Northern Ireland abortion'

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Media captionDenise had to give birth to her dead baby, because she was not able to have an abortion

The UK government must "wake up" and decriminalise abortion in Northern Ireland, Tory MPs have told the BBC.

Anna Soubry, Nicky Morgan and Heidi Allen said Westminster must step in to protect women's human rights.

Northern Ireland's Assembly - which legislates on healthcare - collapsed 21 months ago, and a new poll suggests two-thirds of Northern Ireland citizens would support Westminster intervening.

The UK government said it was for Northern Ireland politicians to decide.

Currently abortion is illegal in Northern Ireland unless there is a serious risk to a woman's life or health.

'Take responsibility'

Conservative MP Anna Soubry told the BBC's Victoria Derbyshire programme that she wanted her party "to wake up to this and take responsibility.

"Real people are suffering in a way that is absolutely intolerable in this day and age," she added.

Image caption Conservative MP Anna Soubry said current laws were "intolerable"

Healthcare is a devolved issue - which means the Northern Ireland Assembly forms its own laws.

But it collapsed in January 2017 after a row between the ruling parties, meaning no decisions can currently be made.

"There is no Assembly and no likelihood of an Assembly," Ms Soubry said.

This year, a UN committee ruled that Northern Irish abortion laws violated women's human rights.

Many in favour of decriminalisation believe that because human rights is not a devolved issue, Westminster has a duty to intervene.

A new poll of 1,000 people by Amnesty International - seen by the Victoria Derbyshire programme - suggests 65% of people in Northern Ireland believe access to abortion should be decriminalised "by removing the criminal penalty for women who have abortions".

Some 66% of those polled said they wanted the UK government to intervene.

Image caption Pro and anti-abortion campaigners in Belfast are handing out leaflets to campaign for and against UK government intervention

Conservative MP Heidi Allen told the programme: "This issue is bigger and too urgent to wait for devolved power to be resumed in Northern Ireland.

"The day the UN confirmed that women's human rights were being violated was the day the argument that we could wait expired."

Fellow Tory MP Nicky Morgan said "I do believe that there is every justification for the Westminster Parliament to be involved in changing the law.

"I shall support colleagues across the House of Commons in making the case for change."

'Remove the criminal element'

Later this month the Labour MP Diana Johnson will put forward a bill in Parliament which proposes removing the piece of law that makes abortion a crime in Northern Ireland.

It has been co-signed by Anna Soubry and has the support of other Conservative MPs.

Ms Johnson told the Victoria Derbyshire programme her proposal would allow abortion to be decriminalised and "still respect devolution", as the Northern Ireland Assembly could decide "the terms of the abortions... when it comes back".

The UK government said in a statement: "As abortion is devolved in Northern Ireland, it is only right that any future reform is for locally elected politicians to consider in a restored Northern Ireland Assembly.

"That is why the Secretary of State [Karen Bradley's] absolute priority remains the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland.

"The government has put in place arrangements to allow women normally resident in Northern Ireland to have access to safe abortion services in England."

Watch the BBC's Victoria Derbyshire programme on weekdays between 09:00 and 11:00 BST on BBC Two and the BBC News channel in the UK and on iPlayer afterwards.

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