BELFAST (Reuters) – Hundreds of women's rights activists gathered in Belfast on Monday to pressure British Prime Minister Theresa May to reform the highly restrictive abortion rules of Northern Ireland after Ireland's neighboring vote to liberalize their laws.
Voters in Ireland on Friday supported the elimination of a constitutional ban on abortion by two to one.
That leaves Northern Ireland ruled by the British as the only part of the British Isles with a restrictive abortion regime, and May on Sunday faces calls from within its cabinet and the opposition to scrap Ireland's strict rules from North.
A spokeswoman for May said Sunday that changing the rules should only be carried out by a government in Northern Ireland.
The province, divided between unionists favoring British rule and nationalists who wish to unite with Ireland, has not had a decentralized regional government since January last year after a power-sharing agreement collapsed between the main parties of the two communities.
Activists gathered on the outskirts of Belfast City Hall carrying placards with messages such as "I am not a recipient" and "Mind your own womb". They said it was May's responsibility to act.
"1, 2, 3, 4, we will no longer be silenced," the crowd intoned. "5, 6, 7, 8, it's time for May to legislate."
Abortion is allowed in Northern Ireland only if a woman's life is at risk or if there is a long-term or permanent risk to her mental or physical health. It is not allowed in cases of rape, incest or fatal fetal anomalies.
Both the mainly unionist Protestants of Northern Ireland and their mainly nationalist Catholics tend to be more socially conservative than anywhere else in Ireland or Great Britain.
The main unionist party, the DUP, is opposed to liberalizing abortion laws, while the main nationalist party, Sinn Fein, supports some changes. DUP lawmakers in London provide the votes needed to support May's minority government.
It is estimated that around three women travel from Northern Ireland to England for an abortion every day, while others run the risk of being prosecuted for self-medication with abortion pills.
"It's terribly unfair that people here can not have an abortion," said schoolgirl George Poots, at the rally with her mother and brother. "At the moment they have to worry about traveling to England and I also think about women who can not travel."
The anti-abortion group Precious Life said the Irish vote would push it to "fight for the protection of unborn children in Northern Ireland." "Northern Ireland is now the beacon of hope for the pro-life movement around the world," said leader Bernie Smyth.
Report of Amanda Ferguson; Edition of Conor Humphries and Peter Graff