The UK parliament has voted to legalize same-sex marriages and to extend access to abortion services in Northern Ireland, in two historic measures that could bring the region’s current laws into line with the rest of the UK.
Lawmakers in London overwhelmingly voted by 383 votes to 73 in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage, and 332 to 99 in favor of abortion reform.
Northern Ireland currently has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world, with the procedure carrying maximum sentences of life imprisonment, even in cases of rape, incest and fatal fetal abnormality.
While the 1967 Abortion Act broadly legalized the procedure throughout the rest of the UK (England, Scotland and Wales), it has never been extended to Northern Ireland, where an 1861 law still holds.
Decisions on abortion law have historically been the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Assembly, which has a special devolved status from the rest of the UK government.
That power-sharing arrangement means nationalists and unionists in the region must work together, with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister leading the executive.
In 2017, the NI Assembly collapsed after its governing coalition, the nationalist Sinn Féin party and unionist Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), collapsed.
If that regional government fails to regroup before October 21, Tuesday’s votes are expected to be implemented into law in Northern Ireland.
However, if the NI Assembly does reach a power-sharing agreement before that date, it would be able to approve or repeal the measures.
‘A defining moment’
For years, members of parliament (MPs) from across the political divide have called on the UK government to change the law in Northern Ireland.
The region’s abortion laws came under increasing scrutiny after the Republic of Ireland legalized abortion following a referendum in May 2018, which called to scrap a constitutional amendment that had essentially banned the practice.
Following that vote, Ireland’s Health Minister Simon Harris announced that women and girls in Northern Ireland would be able to receive access to abortion services across the border, saying that it was “appropriate and important” that these women should be able to access these services rather than being forced to travel to other parts of the UK.
More than 1,050 women from Northern Ireland traveled to England and Wales to access terminations in 2018, an increase of 192 people from the previous year, according to recent UK government figures.
In 2017 the British government announced that it would fund abortions for Northern Irish residents.
And in June 2018, the UK Supreme Court narrowly ruled that current abortion legislation in Northern Ireland is “incompatible” with the European Convention on Human Rights.
Tuesday’s votes have been hailed as a significant step by LGBTQ and women’s rights campaigners across the British Isles.
Ann Furedi, Chief Executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, called the vote on abortion a “truly historic moment,” saying that they are “extremely grateful to all those MPs from across the UK who made clear that they would no longer turn a blind eye to the injustice and suffering faced by the women of Northern Ireland.”
Grainne Teggart, Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland Campaign Manager, called it a “significant defining moment for women’s rights in Northern Ireland,” and called on the government to implement the recommendations of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) who said last year that Northern Ireland’s effective ban on abortion “constitutes violence against women.”
“The grave harm and suffering under Northern Ireland’s abortion regime are finally coming to an end. At a time when prosecutions are still a grim reality, this cannot happen quickly enough,” Teggart said.
The anti-abortion DUP party, which also opposes same-sex marriage, and which currently props up outgoing British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative government, did not welcome the vote.
Nigel Dodds, the DUP’s leader in Westminster, said the vote would drive “a coach and horses through the principle of devolution.”