Northern Ireland has a ban on abortions in almost all cases – even rape or incest. Abortion is only permitted when there is a risk to the life of the mother, or a serious risk to her physical or mental health.
Campaigners were countered by anti-abortion protesters who urged Northern Ireland not to change its restrictive abortion laws.
The original demonstrators chose to go as a group of 28 women to symbolise the number of people who leave Northern Ireland for England and Wales each week to have a termination. They were joined by Derry Girls actors Siobhan McSweeney and Nicola Coughlan.
The women, who included cross-party MPs, carried suitcases containing sheets of paper with the names of 62,000 people who have called for the decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland.
Protesters, who included MPs Karin Smyth, Diana Johnson, Heidi Allen, Christine Jardine and Stella Creasy, delivered Amnesty’s 62,000-strong petition to Westminster’s Northern Ireland Office.
Grainne Teggart, Amnesty’s Northern Ireland campaign manager, said: “Today went really well. There was a very determined mood. We walked in silence with a steely determination to communicate the very serious and grave situation.
“The time has come for the secretary of state for Northern Ireland to stop hiding behind the excuse of devolution as to why she is not changing the law.”
Ms Teggart added that she believed healthcare should not be treated as a criminal justice issue and said Northern Irish women were highly frustrated the UK government has not extended abortion rights to the region.
The suitcases were covered in airport luggage-style stickers with messages reading ‘BFS-LGW’ – a reference to the route from Belfast airport to Gatwick.
Both Lives Matter, the group who staged the opposing protest, called on the Northern Ireland secretary to ensure that Westminster “respects devolution and does not impose an extreme abortion law on Northern Ireland”.
“They are entitled to hold those views,” Ms Teggart said of the counter-protesters. “However, they are out of step with the majority of Northern Ireland and the UK. In Northern Ireland, around seven in ten want abortion decriminalised and the law reformed.”
The counter-protest included 10 women, each carrying a box which the campaigners said contained ”10,000 names symbolising the 100,000 people who are alive today because of Northern Ireland’s abortion laws”.
The 1967 Abortion Act, which established legal abortion, has never applied in Northern Ireland and following devolution, health remains under the jurisdiction of the regional assembly in Stormont. However, the assembly has not sat for two years due to the ongoing impasse between unionist and nationalist parties.
Theresa May has faced pressure to give MPs a free vote on the issue after abortion was legalised in the Republic of Ireland following a historic referendum last May.
Official statistics show that 12 abortions were carried out in Northern Ireland last year. Amnesty International is calling for liberalisation of the stringent rules – saying more than 900 women travelled to England and Wales for the procedure during the same period.
The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission has called for the reform of “termination of pregnancy” laws in Northern Ireland.
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