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London — Britain’s parliament has voted to extend abortion and same-sex marriage rights to Northern Ireland if the country is unable overcome local political deadlock before Oct. 21. Currently, women who terminate pregnancies in Northern Ireland face life in prison, and doctors are required to turn women who have abortions.
Northern Ireland is part of the U.K. along with England, Scotland and Wales, where same-sex marriage is legal and abortion rights are much more liberal.
Northern Ireland is largely run by a local, “devolved” government that hasn’t functioned for over two years because of a deadlock involving its two main political parties. A United Nations committee has declared Northern Ireland’s abortion laws a “grave and systematic” breach of women’s rights, and a majority of U.K. supreme court judges have said Northern Irish laws were not compatible with human rights in cases of sexual crimes and fatal fetal abnormalities, though the relevant case was dismissed because of a legal technicality.
Tuesday’s vote was over a bill to keep Northern Ireland running as politicians try to end the stalemate. Members of Parliament tacked on amendments that would extend abortion and same-sex marriage rights on Oct. 21 if the deadlock continues. They argued that there should not be a delay in addressing these issues because of unrelated political turmoil.
If politicians in Northern Ireland can come to an agreement and create a functioning government, they will be able to approve or repeal the new legislation.
A long fight
A woman is currently facing criminal charges in Northern Ireland for getting her 15-year-old daughter abortion pills to end an unwanted pregnancy in 2013. The woman’s lawyer says the police were alerted after the daughter, who was in an abusive relationship, told a therapist she had taken the pills.
The mother is scheduled to appear in court on November 18, and faces up to five years in jail. If she had administered the pills, she could have faced life in prison.
Grainne Teggart, head of campaigns in Northern Ireland for Amnesty International, said the outcome of the case will have wide ranging implications.
“Women are reluctant to go to their doctors and seek help, because they see cases like this mother where she’s being prosecuted, and they’re afraid,” Teggart told CBS News. “So they stay at home, and they bleed.”
“Defining moment for women’s rights”
“The grave harm and suffering under Northern Ireland’s abortion regime are finally coming to an end,” Teggart said of Tuesday’s vote. “At a time when prosecutions are still a grim reality, this cannot happen quickly enough.”
But some, including anti-abortion rights activist Bernadette Smyth, would prefer Northern Ireland’s abortion laws remain as they are.
“Our law says unborn children are protected here, and we want to keep it like that,” Smyth told CBS News.
“We’ve got drug pushers in Northern Ireland who are providing dangerous pills to women. I think that they’re the real criminals,” she said.
It was unclear how Tuesday’s vote would affect the mother’s prosecution.