Abortion laws in Northern Ireland need 'urgent' reform, MPs say

British and Irish parliamentarians have called for "urgent" reform to Northern Ireland's highly restrictive abortion law after a surge in the number of women going abroad for abortions.

Abortion is permitted in Northern Ireland only if a woman's life is in danger or there is a long-term or permanent risk to her mental or physical health. It is not permitted in cases of rape, incest or fatal fetal abnormality.

"Without urgent action, women and girls living in Northern Ireland will continue to be unable to access safe health care at home," according to an open letter published in the Sunday Times newspaper, signed by more than 170 members of Parliament.

The MPs urged the British government to repeal sections 58 and 59 in the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, which criminalize women who use medication or an instrument to cause an abortion.

The Republic of Ireland, to the south, voted in May to liberalize its laws.

In England, Wales and Scotland, women can legally have the procedure under the Abortion Act 1967, but that does not currently extend to British-ruled Northern Ireland.

"This is the first and critical step to ending the treatment of British and Irish women living in Northern Ireland as second-class citizens who do not enjoy the same access to health care as their counterparts do across these islands," they said.

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald, right, and Michelle O'Neill, leader of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, hold up a placard as they celebrate the result of Ireland's referendum on liberalizing abortion law, in Dublin, May 26, 2018. (Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters)

342 have used hotline since March

It is estimated that about three women a day travel from Northern Ireland to England for an abortion, while others risk prosecution by self-medicating with abortion pills.

Since the government launched a hotline in March to help Northern Irish women access abortion care in England it has been used by 342 people, including a 12-year-old girl, according to the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), which runs the line.

"The U.K. government cannot continue to absolve itself of its responsibility to U.K. citizens in Northern Ireland," said Katherine O'Brien, a spokesperson from BPAS, which released its March-to-May hotline figures on Sunday.

In 2017, a total of 919 Northern Irish women — or 17 women a week — went to England for abortion services, BPAS said.

Britain's Supreme Court said in June that Northern Ireland's strict abortion law was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

But it said it did not have the power to make a formal declaration that the law should be changed.

Story by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers human trafficking, gender equality, climate change and other issues.

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