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Britain’s May Refuses To Loosen Northern Ireland’s Abortion Rules

REUTERS/Toby Melville

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Will Racke Immigration and Foreign Policy Reporter

British Prime Minister Theresa May is refusing to push for changes to Northern Ireland’s tight restrictions on abortion, setting up a confrontation with officials in her own party who want to loosen the rules after neighboring Ireland voted this weekend to overturn its own abortion ban.

Changing Northern Ireland’s abortion laws — the most restrictive in the United Kingdom — should only happen through a vote by the country’s devolved government, a spokesperson for May said Sunday, according to Reuters.

Northern Ireland has been without a devolved executive since a power-sharing agreement collapsed in January. Since then, Britain’s national government has been making decisions for Northern Ireland — it could legislate directly on abortion rules even though they are typically a matter for the devolved government.

May is not publicly backing a campaign to loosen Northern Ireland’s abortion laws, wary of antagonizing the socially conservative members of the Democratic Unionist Party, who make up part of her parliamentary majority. On Sunday, May tweeted to “congratulate the Irish people on their decision” to overturn the country’s abortion ban, but she did not say what the result would mean for Northern Ireland.

Meanwhile, Irish lawmakers were already moving to liberalize the country’s abortion laws after voters overwhelmingly supported repealing a blanket ban on the practice in a national referendum on Friday. The result — a 66 to 34 landslide — overturns Ireland’s Eighth Amendment, a 1983 law that prohibited abortion in all cases except when the life a pregnant woman was at risk. (RELATED: Ireland Votes To Legalize Abortion In What PM Calls A ‘Quiet Revolution’)

Like Ireland, Northern Ireland has similar restrictions on abortion, permitting it only in cases when the life or mental health of the mother is in danger. More than 130 members of Britain’s parliament have said they will back an amendment to a new domestic violence bill that would loosen restrictions on abortions in Northern Ireland, the Sunday Times reported.

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