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UK MPs vote to legalise same-sex marriage and abortion in N. Ireland

Niklas Halle’n, AFP |Demonstrators hold placards as they take part in a protest calling for change to Northern Ireland's abortion laws, during a protest in central London on February 26, 2019.

British parliament overwhelmingly passed amendements on July 9 for marriage equality and abortion rights in Northern Ireland, one of the last remaining European territories holding out against abortion and same-sex marriage.

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Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom where same-sex marriage is not allowed. Homosexuality was only decriminalised in Northern Ireland in 1982. Abortions are forbidden except in cases where a mother's life is at risk. Marriage equality was legalised in 2014 in England, Wales and Scotland. The 1967 Abortion Act made abortion legal in these three countries on a wide number of grounds and was accepted as one of the most liberal abortion laws in Europe when it was enacted.

In the neighbouring Republic of Ireland, the once staunchly conservative population legalised same-sex marriage in 2015 and there was another powerful majority for the referendum to liberalise its abortion laws in 2018.

British parliament decided to strongarm the changes through and bypass the Northern Irish Assembly to compel the government to legalise both abortion and same-sex marriage.

These votes do not automatically change the law in Northern Ireland. Both amendments are still officially within the realm of the Northern Ireland Assembly in Stormont, East Belfast, which collapsed in 2017 and has yet to be restored. If this assembly has not resumed by the deadline of October 21, these amendments will stand.

Landslide votes

In the UK’s House of Commons on Tuesday evening, the first amendment for marriage equality was tabled by Labour MP Conor McGinn. It was passed by 383 votes to 73. The second amendment for extending abortion rights to Northern Ireland was proposed by another Labour MP, Stella Creasy. This was voted through with another landslide of 332 to 99.

Speaking to MPs before the vote, McGinn said that, by delaying full civil rights to LGBT people in Northern Ireland, Westminster had neglected them.

“This House has failed LGBT people in Northern Ireland before. It failed a generation of people in Northern Ireland by not decriminalising homosexuality and condemned them to discrimination, to abuse and to living in fear many years after that stopped being the case in the rest of the UK.

“It failed people in Northern Ireland by not extending same-sex marriage when it became the law here, making people in NI less valued than the rest of us. Tonight we have a chance to do the right thing.”

MPs from the socially conservative Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) voted against both of the amendments, arguing parliament was overstepping the mark and the matters should remain to be resolved by Stormont.

However, it is considered highly unlikely that Stormont will be restored within the deadline of October 21.

FRANCE 24 spoke to Patrick Corrigan, Head of Nations & Regions at Amnesty International UK.

What is the situation currently in Northern Ireland for same-sex couples and for women seeking abortions?

“Everywhere else in the UK, same-sex couples have equal status, but not in Northern Ireland. At the moment, they are able to get civil partnerships but not marriage. If a couple from Northern Ireland gets married in another jurisdiction, say in London or Dublin, and then return to the North, their relationship is no longer recognised as being married, it is automatically reduced to being a civil partnership.

“This has also become a major issue for the international business community in the North, who have become part of Amnesty’s campaign. It is deeply offensive to people arriving from say America or India to work in the North to say that their marriage is no longer valid, that they now just have the status of civil partners.”

“Regarding abortion, there is currently a near total ban. The only exception is if there is serious risk to the women’s life. At the moment, this means that just 10 women a year legally access abortion in the North. According to reports, over 1,000 women travel every year for abortions, primarily to England. And there is an unknown number of women and girls accessing abortion pills online and taking them unsupervised.”

“Several years ago, a 15-year old schoolgirl became pregnant in the context of an abusive relationship. Her mother felt she had no choice other than to buy abortion pills online that did induce a miscarriage. Like many other mothers and daughters in the North are forced to do. But someone reported this mother to the police, who investigated and decided there was enough to build a prosecution case against the mother.

“The girl was underage, so it was statutory rape and this is a huge human rights’ violation. A date for the trial has been set and the mother could face up to life imprisonment under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. In any other part of the UK, the mother and daughter would have been able to go to a doctor together and have this medicine legally prescribed and safely taken under supervision.”

Did yesterday’s vote take everyone by surprise?

“Amnesty knew that these amendments would easily pass, we had worked with so many people, but we just had no idea when. We had moved our campaign from Stormont to Westminster over the last two years, working directly with MPs there, particularly the two MPs who tabled the bills, Conor McGinn and Stella Creasy.

“This July 9 vote was preceded by private members’ bills and there was huge support for these across almost all parties, apart from the strongly loyalist DUP members. We have had other amendments in place before, but this was the first time that these exact amendments had been tabled.

“We needed to wait for the right government bill to come forward, one that our amendments would work with.

“We only found out at lunchtime yesterday [Tuesday] that they had been selected by the Speaker’s office to be part of the schedule for that same day.”

What happens now?

“The government has to deliver what has been voted on. It is no longer up for discussion. The government will have to bring forward legislation to get it passed. The change is coming and it’s coming via Westminster.

“In all of the opinion polls, Northern Irish people are pro-equality and pro-choice. So even if Stormont is back up and running again by October, there is still significant momentum behind both these issues.

“Interestingly, this could take Northern Ireland a step beyond both what the Republic of Ireland voted for and also the current situation in Great Britain. This means abortion will be a fully decriminalised act.”

“We want to move to a situation where abortion is viewed as a human rights and healthcare issue, not a crime to which there may be exceptions.”

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