A woman who has campaigned for six years to liberalise Northern Ireland’s abortion laws broke down in tears as the House of Commons passed legislation repealing a law criminalising terminations in the region.
The vote came as a majority of MPs voted for the Northern Ireland (Executive Powers) Bill, which was designed to allow Secretary of State Karen Bradley to delay calling fresh Assembly elections.
Labour MPs Stella Creasy and Conor McGinn spearheaded the amendments to the bill to make abortion lawful and also to allow same-sex marriage in the region.
The bill was passed by 328 votes to 65.
The vote was welcomed by pro-choice campaigners, but described as “disgraceful” by a pro-life lobby group.
Of the 11 MPs from Northern Ireland who take their seats, seven of the 10 DUP MPs voted against, two acted as tellers for the noes while independent MP Lady Sylvia Hermon voted for the amendments.
Abortion is now set to be decriminalised in Northern Ireland from October 22, and regulations will be in place from March 31, 2020.
The repealing of the 1861 Offences Against the Persons Act will mean that the laws around abortion in Northern Ireland will be the most liberal in the UK.
Sarah Ewart, a Belfast woman who has been campaigning for six years against the region’s abortion laws, watched the proceedings from her home on Thursday.
She wept, and was embraced by Grainne Teggart from Amnesty International who supported her campaign, as the results of the vote was announced.
“I feel massively relieved, I feel like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders, this has been six years we have been trying to get some change and finally Westminster are going to act and give women here the healthcare we deserve,” she told PA.
Ms Teggart described it as a “momentous day” for human rights in Northern Ireland.
“Today is a hugely significant day, we have been fighting through the courts and building cross-party support at Westminster for the past number of years so we are just delighted that the amendments have passed by such a landslide majority,” she said.
“Clearly parliament has heard the damage that has been caused by our existing abortion laws and they have just voted and agreed to lift our 158-year-old abortion ban. That is just incredible.
“The bill will take effect on October 22 if our Northern Ireland Executive isn’t back, and that will mean that current criminal prosecutions will fall away, so for those women who have been criminalised for accessing this form of healthcare and are awaiting trial, this is a hugely significant day for them too.”
Ms Ewart travelled to England in October 2013 for a termination after being denied one in Northern Ireland, despite doctors saying her baby would not survive outside the womb.
“October is a month I will never forget for the rest of my life, I welcome this change and I am so relieved that women are not going to have to go through what I went through,” she said.
“This is healthcare and we should be getting it like the rest of the UK in our own hospitals with our own consultants.
“What has happened today is consultants will be able to do their job properly and give us the healthcare that we need.”
Ann Furedi, chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (bpas), also welcomed the vote.
“At bpas, every day we see the immense hardship imposed on women and girls who are forced to travel overseas, often alone, to access medical care,” she said.
“We look forward to the day when all UK citizens can access safe, legal abortion care within their own country, supported by their own doctors, nurses, and midwives.”
The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) Northern Ireland blasted the vote as a “disgraceful abuse of power by Westminster”.
“It is outrageous that MPs and peers from England, Scotland and Wales cared so little for the rule of law that an overwhelming majority were prepared to disregard the right of the people of Northern Ireland to maintain legislation which has saved the lives of over 100,000 children since 1967,” said Liam Gibson.
“The speed with which this Bill has been imposed has made a mockery of the parliamentary process. There is a complete lack of clarity regarding its provisions and the Government has refused to allow time for any proper consideration of the consequences of the decriminalisation of abortion.
“By ramming abortion on demand down our throats, Parliament has torn-up the devolution settlement and is treating Northern Ireland as a colony.
“There are very serious questions about the constitutionality of this legislation which the next prime minister will have to answer.”