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 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.