Westminster will act on Northern Ireland’s strict abortion law, Penny Mordaunt

Parliament will step in to change Northern Ireland’s strict law on abortion if a court rules it is incompatible with individual human rights, Women and Equalities Minister Penny Mordaunt has said.

At a Tory leadership hustings in Belfast on Tuesday, both Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt said they believed the issue should be a matter for the devolved authorities in Northern Ireland.

But with the Stormont institutions suspended since the collapse of powersharing in 2017, Ms Mordaunt (pictured) indicated that MPs at Westminster would act if the High Court in Belfast upheld a challenge to the current law.

Ms Mordaunt, who is also the Defence Secretary and a strong supporter of Mr Hunt, said the Commons Women and Equalities Committee had received “shocking” evidence about the lack of care available to women in the province seeking a termination.

“The reason why this hasn’t been dealt with to date is because it is a devolved matter and we take devolution seriously,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“We are expecting a ruling shortly that what is going on in Northern Ireland is incompatible with an individual’s human rights.

“In every single case where there has been a declaration of incompatibility with human rights, the Government has acted. This Government has acted, previous governments have acted.

“Parliament has been very vocal on this issue and, if a government didn’t act, Parliament would and there would be clearly a free vote on that issue.”

She added: “I think this needs to be resolved. I think the paucity of care that women have endured in Northern Ireland is the most appalling thing. It must change, that is my view.”

At the hustings on Tuesday, Mr Hunt said he personally supported a change to the law but both he and Mr Johnson agreed it should ultimately be a matter for Stormont where the Tories’ allies in the DUP strongly oppose change.

The current legal challenge has been brought by Sarah Ewart, 28, who in 2013 was denied an abortion in Northern Ireland after receiving a diagnosis of a fatal foetal abnormality.

Her case was brought after the Supreme Court ruled last year that Northern Ireland’s abortion laws were in breach of human rights laws.

However, the court concluded that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission – which brought the case – did not have the power to bring the proceedings as it was not itself a “victim” of any unlawful act.

Grainne Teggart, Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland campaign manager, welcomed Ms Mordaunt’s comments.

“The comments demonstrate the support within Cabinet for change and will act as a reminder to the next prime minister that the UK Government cannot ignore their responsibilities nor hide from the urgent need for reform,” she said.

“Inaction and hiding behind devolution as justification for the denial of women’s rights will not be accepted.

“Of course, we don’t need to wait for a court judgment to tell us what we already know which is that the law in Northern Ireland violates rights, the next prime minister should prioritise bringing an end to the harm caused by our laws and legislate for change.”

Sarah Ewart, who has brought a legal challenge to the High Court in Belfast after she was forced to travel to Britain for an abortion after her pregnancy was given a fatal foetal diagnosis, said she hopes government will listen to women like her.

“We shouldn’t have to fight through the courts to have our rights realised,” she said.

“Experiencing something as painful as I did and then having no option but to go through the ordeal of the courts is emotionally draining.

“Northern Ireland’s archaic abortion laws have left women like me suffering for far too long.

“We met with Minister Mordaunt previously to discuss the situation in Northern Ireland and welcome her comments. We hope the Government listens to women like me who have called on Westminster to legislate. We will keep fighting, alongside Amnesty, until change happens.”

Copyright (c) PA Media Ltd. 2019, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) PA Wire.