By Sonia Elks
LONDON, April 25 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Northern Ireland's near-total ban on abortion must be changed "as a matter of urgency" to allow women carrying foetuses with fatal abnormalities to end their pregnancies, British lawmakers said on Thursday.
Pressure has been mounting on Northern Ireland to relax its highly restrictive abortion rules since voters in the neighbouring Irish republic backed the removal of a ban last year in a landslide vote.
But Northern Ireland has not had a government since a power-sharing administration collapsed in 2017 and Britain said last year that any such change should only be undertaken by a devolved government.
On Thursday, however, a parliamentary committee said British lawmakers should step in to address "grave" and "systematic" breaches in women's rights.
"The evidence we heard was heartbreaking," said Maria Miller, chairwoman of the Women and Equalities Committee.
"We heard from women who had suffered the loss of the baby before it was born and were not able to access an abortion to be able to terminate that pregnancy or knew that their baby was going to die before they were born.
"At a time when there is no [Northern Irish] government in place, the UK government has to act," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Abortion is barred under almost all circumstances in Northern Ireland with even rape and fatal foetal abnormality not considered legal grounds for a termination.
The maximum penalty for undergoing or performing an unlawful abortion is life imprisonment.
A United Nations committee last year found the restrictions violated women's rights and recommended changing the law to stop criminal charges being brought against anyone undergoing or assisting in an abortion.
The British parliamentary committee said devolution could not be used to justify a failure to meet human rights standards.
It also warned that some doctors were not informing patients they could obtain abortions in England due to a lack of clarity in the law and called for officials to release guidance assuring it was legal for them to do so.
"Every day we see the devastating impact that restrictive abortion law has on women and their families," said Ruairi Rowan of the sexual health and family planning charity FPA.
"Without exception we have never seen a woman say the law is fit for purpose ... We urge the UK government to listen and act on the inquiry as a matter of urgency."
However, the charity Christian Action Research and Education said it would undermine devolution if Britain stepped in.
The number of women who underwent legal abortions in Northern Ireland dwindled to just 12 in 2017/18, but about 850 women travelled to England to obtain abortions and hundreds more bought abortion pills online, the committee heard.
It also found there was widespread support for reform, with a survey in 2016 finding nearly two thirds of respondents thought woman had a right to choose.
(Reporting by Sonia Elks @soniaelks; Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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