In Northern Ireland, abortion rights groups clamor for change

BELFAST (Reuters) - Abortion rights activists in Northern Ireland called on the British government to end what one group described as the province’s “Victorian-era abortion ban” after neighboring Ireland voted by a landslide to liberalize its laws.

Voters in the once deeply Catholic Irish republic were estimated to have backed a referendum by more than two-to-one, according to two exit polls, prompting campaigners across the border to step up their demands for change.

A socially conservative province where the Catholic and Protestant faiths exert strong influence, Northern Ireland allows abortion only when a mother’s life is in danger. The penalty for undergoing or performing an unlawful abortion is life imprisonment.

“It must not be forgotten that us women in Northern Ireland are still persecuted by a Victorian-era abortion ban,” Grainne Teggart, Northern Ireland campaign manager for Amnesty International said in a statement on Saturday.

“It’s hypocritical, degrading and insulting to Northern Irish women that we are forced to travel for vital healthcare services but cannot access them at home. We cannot be left behind in a corner of the UK and on the island of Ireland as second-class citizens.”

Dublin plans to bring in legislation this year to allow abortions with no restriction up to 12 weeks into a pregnancy, raising the prospect that women in Northern Ireland may start traveling south of the border for terminations.

The Supreme Court in London is expected to make a ruling in the next few months on a case considering whether Northern Ireland abortion law breaches women’s rights.

Northern Ireland’s elected assembly has the right to bring its abortion laws in line with the rest of the United Kingdom, but voted against doing so in February 2016 and the assembly has not sat since the devolved government collapsed in January 2017.

Calls on Saturday, including an appeal by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (Bpas), were instead directed at Prime Minister’s Theresa May’s government in London.

The British government’s Northern Ireland Office declined to comment, saying it was a devolved matter.

A demonstration for change was due to take place at Belfast City Hall on Monday, the Solidarity with Repeal group said.

Jim Wells, a member of the socially conservative Democratic Unionist Party that props up May’s minority government, said the outcome in the south was “an extremely worrying development for the protection of the unborn child in Northern Ireland.”

“Whilst deeply disappointed by yesterday’s vote the Pro Life movement must now redouble its efforts to prevent any change in law in Northern Ireland,” he said in a statement.

Editing by Padraic Halpin and Toby Chopra