07:57, May 28 236 0 theguardian.com

2018-05-28 07:57:04
Northern Ireland abortion reforms 'a test of May's feminism'

Theresa May has been challenged to demonstrate her feminist credentials by relaxing Northern Ireland’s abortion laws after Irish voters supported liberalisation in a landslide referendum result.

The shadow attorney general, Shami Chakrabarti, said abortion reforms that brought the rights of women in Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK were “a test” of the prime minister’s feminism.

May has faced growing calls for a referendum on relaxing legislation, after signalling that she would not risk alienating her Democratic Unionist party (DUP) allies by letting MPs settle the matter with a parliamentary vote.

About 160 MPs have backed a letter, championed by the Labour MP Stella Creasy, saying the government should legislate as Northern Ireland will now be the only place in Britain and Ireland where abortion is illegal in most circumstances.

“We are calling on Mrs May, a self-identifying feminist, to negotiate with the parties in Northern Ireland and then to legislate without further delay,” Chakrabarti said. “You can’t have democracy without fundamental human rights, and the women of Northern Ireland have suffered for long enough.

“I think Theresa May, really as a self-identifying feminist, needs to say: ‘Yes, I unveil statues of suffragists in Parliament Square, but the test of my feminism will be whether I guarantee fundamental human rights for women’.”

Labour has said it is committed to extending abortion rights to Northern Ireland and that it would be “looking at legislative options” to try to orchestrate a vote in the Commons.

However, Downing Street has rejected the move on the grounds that abortion is a devolved matter that should be decided by the Northern Ireland executive and assembly, both of which have been suspended for almost 18 months.

Chakrabarti suggested that unless devolution was restored quickly then Westminster MPs had a responsibility to act.

“These women in Northern Ireland, often very vulnerable, being forced to leave their homes and their loved ones and their country to get this kind of treatment, that really has gone on long enough,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“We would like to see that devolution restored urgently … If this issue creates greater impetus for that to happen then so much the better. But if this blockage continues these vulnerable women can be ignored no longer.”

The anti-abortion DUP, whose 12 MPs the prime minister relies on to prop up her minority government, are against Westminster taking a decision on liberalising abortion while Stormont is suspended.

The DUP MP Jim Shannon said: “We have a Northern Ireland assembly that has been in limbo for 18 months. At the same time, it’s still the Northern Ireland assembly, the legislative change still lies with them.

“It hasn’t gone to direct rule just yet and at this moment in time I don’t see that happening. Until such time as that change is made then the Northern Ireland assembly will be the methodology, the only methodology, to make that change.”

A supreme court judgment on whether abortion law in Northern Ireland is incompatible with international human rights is expected this year.

Abortions are only available in Northern Irish hospitals for women whose life or health is in danger; 23 were carried out between 2013-14. Rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormalities are not circumstances in which an abortion can be performed legally.

Les Allamby, Northern Ireland’s commissioner for human rights, who is backing the supreme court case, said that if the ruling went against the existing legislation, and Stormont was still suspended, the UK government would have to act.

“It would no longer be a little local difficulty if there was legislation that wasn’t in compliance with human rights laws and standards. Then if there was a refusal to deal with that – and hitherto the UK government has always abided by decisions of the highest court on issues of incompatibility and human rights – then yes, that would become a very significant issue.”

He said the number of people who wanted to see change had increased.

“There is a sense of a wind of change … Northern Ireland is in danger of becoming a place apart; we don’t have equal marriage, we don’t have a single equality act and now it looks like we’ll have a restricted law on abortion. If our [court] challenge is successful then that poses a very significant challenge to Northern Ireland.”

The experience of Sarah Ewart, who travelled to England for an abortion after doctors said her unborn child would not survive outside the womb, was key to instigating the court case.

Ewart joined the calls for the UK government to step in.

“If we had an assembly here, we would be literally at their doors begging, but we don’t so we are really hoping that we can have help from Westminster and Theresa May to give us the access we need,” she said.

“It’s a relief that women like me are going to be able to travel down to Dublin to access this procedure, but really we are wanting the help here to have it within our own hospitals in Northern Ireland.”