LONDON — The British government is under mounting pressure to ease Northern Ireland's restrictive abortion laws, but a Cabinet minister said Tuesday it would be wrong to impose change from London.
"Personally, I want to see reform in Northern Ireland, but it is a matter for the people of Northern Ireland," Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Karen Bradley told lawmakers in the House of Commons.
Northern Ireland is the only part of the U.K. where abortion is illegal in all but exceptional cases. The neighboring Republic of Ireland voted last month to lift its abortion ban, putting pressure on the north to follow suit.
The sensitive issue is complicated because abortion rules are the responsibility of Northern Ireland's Belfast-based administration, which has been suspended since January 2017 because of feuding between the main Catholic and Protestant political parties.
Bradley said the best option for progress on abortion rights is to get the Northern Ireland assembly and government running again. But there is little sign of a breakthrough in the impasse between Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party.
Given the political vacuum in Northern Ireland, some U.K. lawmakers want Britain's Parliament to intervene. They argue that abortion is a matter of human rights and therefore an issue for central, not regional, government.
The U.K. Supreme Court is due to rule Thursday on whether Northern Ireland's abortion ban violates women's human rights.
Labour lawmaker Stella Creasy, who was granted an emergency debate on the issue Tuesday, said Parliament should repeal "outdated" sections of the 1861 Offenses Against the Person Act, the legislation that bars abortion in Northern Ireland.
"Women will never truly be free whilst one cannot control what happens to their own body," Creasy said.
In another complicating factor, Prime Minister Theresa May's Conservative minority government relies for survival on the support of 10 lawmakers from Northern Ireland's traditionalist Democratic Unionist Party, which strongly opposes legalizing abortion.
DUP lawmaker Jeffrey Donaldson said he was "proud of the fact that there are so many people alive in Northern Ireland today because we have a law that respects the rights of both women and of the unborn child."
Bradley said any vote on abortion in Parliament would be a conducted as a free vote, rather than one whipped on party lines. It's likely a majority would back change under those circumstances.
The prime minister "has been clear in her support for women's rights in respect of access to safe abortions and she welcomed the referendum result in Ireland," Bradley said.