Abortion Debate Could Destabilize May's Fragile Commons Majority

(Bloomberg) -- U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May faces a challenge to the fragile deal that keeps her in power Tuesday when lawmakers hold an emergency debate on abortion law in Northern Ireland.

Many in May’s Conservative Party are set to back the symbolic vote against an 1861 law that enables Northern Ireland to restrict abortions to cases where a woman’s life is in danger or she runs a serious risk to her mental or physical health. The province’s Democratic Unionist Party -- whose House of Commons votes May depends on -- will oppose it.

The landslide win for the “Yes” campaign in the Republic of Ireland’s referendum on abortion last month has increased calls for change north of the border to bring it in line with the rest of the U.K. Pressure has mounted on May, a self-declared feminist, to make it government policy.

“The Offences Against the Person Act is more than 150 years old, it puts abortion in the same category as homicide, destroying or damaging a building with the use of gunpowder, child stealing, rape, and defilement of women,” Labour lawmaker Stella Creasy said as she successfully argued for the debate. “By repealing the Act, we, as the U.K. Parliament, can show women across the United Kingdom that we trust them all with their own healthcare, wherever they live.”

Repealing the relevant sections of the act would enable the Northern Ireland Assembly to make a decision on permitting abortion rather than forcing its hand, Creasy said. She was seeking to placate those who say it should be a decision for the Northern Ireland Assembly, which is currently suspended, when power sharing is restored.

DUP leader Arlene Foster, who has committed to maintaining Northern Ireland’s strict stance on abortion, said Sunday it should be a decision for the province. Voters are switching to her party because of its policy, she said.

“Abortion is a very emotive subject, a very sensitive subject and therefore it deserves a serious discussion and a serious, mature debate,” Foster told Sky News. “The way to have that debate, looking at the evidence, speaking to people who have gone through those crisis pregnancies, is to have that debate in the devolved administration.”

May’s spokesman, James Slack, told reporters in London last week that it is “a devolved matter.”

“It’s important to recognize that the people of Northern Ireland are entitled to their own process which is run by locally elected politicians,” he said.

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