UK faces calls to liberalize Northern Ireland abortion laws

LONDON — The British government faced intensifying pressure Sunday to take steps to legalize abortions in Northern Ireland, where terminating a pregnancy remains a criminal offense even as tight abortion restrictions are being lifted in the Republic of Ireland.

More than 170 politicians from political parties in Britain, Ireland and Northern Ireland sent a letter to the Sunday Times that urged the government to repeal the 19th- century laws that make it a crime to have an abortion in Northern Ireland.

"This is the first and critical step to ending the treatment of British and Irish women living in Northern Ireland as second-class citizens, who do not enjoy the same access to health care as their counterparts do across these islands," the letter said.

The open letter says that nearly 1,000 women and girls from Northern Ireland went to the British mainland for abortions last year and others took abortion-inducing pills that are illegal in that part of the U.K.

Voters in the Republic of Ireland overwhelmingly approved a May referendum to repeal a constitutional amendment that barred most abortions. In its place, new laws spelling out the conditions for legal abortions are expected to be enacted.

The vote does not affect Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. Abortions are prohibited there even in cases of rape and when the fetus is judged by experts to have a fatal abnormality. Abortions have been allowed in England, Wales and Scotland for more than 50 years.

Northern Ireland's power-sharing assembly is not operating at the moment, leaving the British government in control. British Prime Minister Theresa May —busy with Brexit negotiations — has not moved to address abortion access in Northern Ireland.

Her minority government depends on the cooperation of the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, which is opposed to abortion.

The letter is unlikely to have any immediate impact as Britain's Parliament is about to begin its lengthy summer recess.

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