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British Prime Minister Faces Pressure To Reform Northern Ireland's Abortion Laws


Let's turn now to the historic vote in Ireland which overturned that country's ban on abortion. Now, that vote does not extend to Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. Now British Prime Minister Theresa May is under pressure to reform abortion laws in Northern Ireland, laws that are some of the most restrictive in Europe.

NPR's Debbie Elliott joins us from London, where she's on assignment for a few weeks. Hey there, Debbie.


KELLY: Hey. So where is the pressure on Prime Minister May coming from?

ELLIOTT: Well, it's coming from all sides, both within her own Conservative Party and from the opposition Labour Party. She's being asked to take steps to ease the abortion restrictions in Northern Ireland. You know, even from within her own Cabinet - for instance, the minister for women and equalities, Penny Mordaunt, took to Twitter over the weekend to call for change north of the border. She called it a historic and great day for Ireland and a, quote, "hopeful one" for Northern Ireland. That hope must be met, she said. So some members of Parliament say there are enough votes to ease abortion restrictions in Northern Ireland if May were to call for such a vote.

KELLY: And has she given any indication whether she is likely to call for such a vote? How's she leaning?

ELLIOTT: It doesn't sound likely. She hasn't spoken publicly. But a spokesperson has said that the changes should be left to the government in Northern Ireland. Now, as an aside, Mary Louise, we should note that right now there is no government of Northern Ireland because it's not functioning and hasn't been for 18 months because both sides that shared power have fallen out. Any potential vote in Parliament would face stiff opposition from the socially conservative Democratic Unionist Party there.

That party right now is very important to Prime Minister May. It's basically propping up her minority government. And the DUP leader, Arlene Foster, was clear after the Irish referendum, saying it has no impact on their law. She said, quote, "it is for Northern Ireland Assembly to debate and decide such issues." So May finds herself in complicated political territory.

KELLY: Right. And just to lay out the very complicated political landscape which you're touching on, we mentioned Northern Ireland is part of the U.K. But U.K. abortion law does not apply there, nor does abortion law as it's changing in the Republic of Ireland to the south. What is the situation, then, for women in Northern Ireland if they want to get an abortion?

ELLIOTT: Well, right now most of them have to travel elsewhere because of that abortion ban. It prohibits abortion even in the cases of rape, incest or when a doctor has determined that a fetus has abnormalities that are likely fatal. It's only allowed in cases where a woman's life or health are at serious risk. But it's far from a simple question in part because of those politics.

KELLY: That is NPR's Debbie Elliott on assignment in London. Thanks so much, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.
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