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Ulster abortion plan shelved to keep the peace

Resource type: News

The Daily Telegraph (London) |

by Rosa Prince and Martin Beckford PLANS to legalise abortion in Northern Ireland have been shelved by MPs after they were warned that the move could undermine the fragile peace process. A pro-choice group in the Commons had been preparing to table an amendment to the forthcoming Embryology Bill to introduce legal terminations to Northern Ireland, the only part of the UK where the procedure remains illegal. However, ministers have privately warned Labour MPs that, with the Stormont executive close to collapse, any move on abortion could tip Northern Ireland’s politicians into withdrawing from negotiations. The MPs still propose to push ahead with separate plans to make access to abortion easier in the rest of the country by removing the requirement for two doctors’ signatures and allowing nurses to carry out early-stage terminations. This is certain to lead to clashes in the House of Commons, where pro-life MPs are equally determined to block them. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, which also includes measures allowing embryo research, has already been the cause of some of the most heated exchanges in Parliament in recent years. It had been due to clear the Commons in July, but was suddenly halted on the intervention of Harriet Harman, the Leader of the House, who was said to be keen to see the Northern Ireland amendment pass and wanted more time to drum up support for it. Pro-choice MPs had been confident of success when the Bill returns to the Commons at the end of the month, particularly given the departure from the Cabinet of Ruth Kelly, the former transport secretary. As a committed Catholic, she had forced Gordon Brown to allow ministers an unusual free vote when it was last debated. In recent days, however, the Ulster political situation has deteriorated, with the Executive failing to meet as scheduled as a result of a disagreement between Unionists and republicans over the devolution of policing and justice. Abortion is one area where Northern Ireland’s politicians largely agree – with both Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party opposed to legalisation. About 1,400 girls and women travel to the British mainland from the province each year to have a termination. The 1967 Act that legalised abortion in Britain was never extended to Northern Ireland.

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