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Health Team

Polls show broad support for Northern Ireland abortion reform

Posted October 9, 2018 7:01 p.m. EDT

— Nearly two-thirds of people in Northern Ireland -- and more than three-quarters of the UK public -- believe that abortion should be decriminalized in the country, according to polls released Wednesday by Amnesty International.

Pregnancy terminations are illegal in Northern Ireland, except in cases in which the mother's life or health is at risk. The 1967 Abortion Act, which broadly legalized the procedure in the rest of the UK, has never been extended to Northern Ireland, where an 1861 law still stands.

One of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world makes the procedure illegal even in the cases of rape, incest and fatal fetal abnormality.

An overwhelming majority of British people (78%) would like to see abortion decriminalized in Northern Ireland, the only place in the British Isles where it is against the law, the online poll found.

Meanwhile, 65% of those living in Northern Ireland believe that having an abortion should not be a crime, according to another poll commissioned by Amnesty.

Support for reforming the laws crosses Northern Ireland's political divide, with 67% of Democratic Unionist Party voters questioned calling for change, as are 74% of Conservative voters and 78% of Labour supporters.

The research, carried out by YouGov in Britain and Cognisense Omnibus Survey in Northern Ireland, is the first major polling on the issue since Ireland voted to legalize the practice in a landmark referendum in May.

Results of the two polls come as Member of Parliament Diana Johnson launches a private members' bill in Westminster on Wednesday to decriminalize consensual abortion in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Grainne Teggart, Amnesty International's Northern Ireland campaign manager, said in a statement, "Our research shows landslide support for reform to Northern Ireland's repressive abortion law.

"This confirms what we've long known -- that most people in Northern Ireland and across the UK agree that it's completely wrong for Northern Irish women to be governed by an archaic law that denies them their rights, health and autonomy.

"Voters of all political backgrounds -- including Labour, Conservative, Sinn Fein and DUP voters -- are backing decriminalization of abortion.

"The UK government cannot ignore the overwhelming support for abortion law reform. It must listen to the people and put an end to the criminalization of women and girls."

Decisions on abortion law are the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Assembly, but it has been suspended for more than a year because of a political impasse. Despite the hiatus, the UK government has said it will not intervene on the issue.

In a statement, Johnson called abortion "fundamentally a women's healthcare and human rights issue. The law should reflect this. If we don't act now, women will continue to suffer under an outdated and ineffective regime regulating abortion."

"Our government cannot sit by and watch that happen. The 10-minute rule bill I'm launching today gives us an opportunity to do the right thing for the women and girls of Northern Ireland."

Last month, a landmark abortion case came before a court in Northern Ireland when a woman appealed a decision to prosecute her for buying abortion pills for her 15-year-old daughter in 2013.

According to Amnesty International, it was the first time a prosecution relating to the country's abortion laws was challenged.