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Prime Minister confirms House of Commons can have free vote on abortion in Northern Ireland in principle


Prime Minister Theresa May has confirmed that if the issue of legislating for safe and legal access to abortion services in Northern Ireland comes before the House of Commons, MPs will be given a free vote. This means that MPs will be able to vote according to their consciences rather than according to party policy on, for example, devolution. Northern Ireland Humanists and Humanists UK, which jointly briefed MPs ahead of last week’s debate on the issue, has called upon the UK Government to heed the advice of the Supreme Court and take immediate legislative action for the realisation of women’s sexual and reproductive rights in the country.

Speaking at the G7 Summit in Canada, Theresa May commented, ‘obviously in the House of Commons any votes on abortion are always… a conscience issue and always and will continue to be treated as a free vote.’ Although she caveated this statement with an admission that her preferred approach would be for the Northern Ireland Assembly, which has not sat in over 20 months and failed repeatedly to bring about change over the previous 20 years, to reconvene and address this issue.

This followed comments made by Equalities Minister Penny Mordaunt that if no progress is made towards the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly, Westminster is prepared to act.

Last week, the Supreme Court determined that the law in Northern Ireland is incompatible with human rights legislation, stating that it was ‘untenable’, ‘disproportionate’, and needs ‘radical reconsideration.’ In the judgment, Supreme Court Judge Lord Mance stated ‘those responsible for ensuring the compatibility of Northern Ireland law with the Convention rights will no doubt recognise and take account of these conclusions, at as early a time as possible, by considering whether and how to amend the law, in the light of the ongoing suffering being caused by it. [emphasis added]’ Humanists UK was the First Interveners in that case.

The law governing abortion in Northern Ireland is one of the most restrictive in Europe and the criminal sanctions imposed are amongst the harshest in the world, with the maximum sentence being life imprisonment. Current restrictions force women to either travel to the UK to receive treatment, risk prosecution for procuring illegal online abortion pills, or continue their pregnancies against their wishes and in violation of their rights. There is no exception made for pregnancies that arise as a result of sexual crime or where there is a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality.

Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator commented, ‘Although we welcome confirmation that there will be a free vote should legislation be brought before the House of Commons – it is time for action not words. Last week’s Supreme Court judgment made clear that current restrictions on abortion are incompatible with human rights and our international responsibilities for upholding rights lie with the UK Government. We would like the Prime Minister to set out a timetable for legislative change regardless of the status of the Northern Ireland Assembly. This should be as soon as possible, as asked for by the Supreme Court, and as required by the many Northern Ireland women in desperate need for change.’


For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson on or 0781 55 89 636, or Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator on or on 07918 975 795.

Read more about Humanists UK’s campaigns work on abortion:

At Humanists UK, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. Our work brings non-religious people together to develop their own views, helping people be happier and more fulfilled in the one life we have. Through our ceremonies, education services, and community and campaigning work, we strive to create a fair and equal society for all.

Northern Ireland Humanists is a part of Humanists UK, working with the Humanist Association of Ireland.


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