U.K. Parliament Backs Same-Sex Marriage and Abortion Rights in Northern Ireland

LONDON — British lawmakers voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday to legalize same-sex marriage and extend abortion rights in Northern Ireland as long as the region’s governing coalition remained paralyzed, setting the stage for changes that would bring the region into line with the rest of the United Kingdom.

The votes do not in and of themselves change the law in Northern Ireland. Both issues are traditionally within the realm of the regional government there, but its governing coalition collapsed in 2017, creating a power vacuum that remains unfilled.

Members of Parliament in London argued that as long as the deadlock persisted, they had an obligation to step in.

Lawmakers on Tuesday night voted 383 to 73 in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage, and 332 to 99 in favor of extending abortion rights. The government cautioned that putting the changes into law would be complicated, and the abortion measure did not explicitly state how it would expand abortion rights.

The measures are designed to go into effect if Northern Ireland does not restore a regional government by late October. If the regional government gets back up and running after that, it would have the power to approve or repeal the changes.

Abortion rights advocates and supporters of same-sex marriage have fought for years to liberalize laws in Northern Ireland, where the rules are more restrictive than in the rest of the United Kingdom and in the Republic of Ireland.

But any changes have been staunchly opposed by conservatives in the Democratic Unionist Party, which has propped up the Conservative government of Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May.

Talks are continuing to restore the regional government in Northern Ireland, which in effect must be led by a coalition between the Democratic Unionist Party, which wants Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom, and Sinn Fein, a nationalist party that hopes for a united Ireland.

Conor McGinn, a Labour lawmaker and longtime advocate for same-sex marriage rights in Northern Ireland, told members of Parliament that the body had “failed L.G.B.T. people in Northern Ireland before” by allowing legal changes to lag behind those in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Mr. McGinn proposed the same-sex marriage measure, while another Labour lawmaker, Stella Creasy, proposed the abortion rights measure. Both were amendments to a bill related to the stalled Northern Ireland assembly.

Ms. Creasy expressed outrage on Tuesday that a rape victim seeking to terminate a pregnancy in Northern Ireland could face a longer prison sentence than the attacker. Abortion is illegal there under almost all circumstances, and hundreds of women travel to England and Wales each year for the procedure, according to Britain’s Department of Health and Social Care.

A United Nations committee said Northern Ireland’s abortion laws created “grave and systematic violations of rights.”

The Democratic Unionist Party protested the changes backed by lawmakers on Tuesday. The party’s leader in Parliament, Nigel Dodds, said the lawmakers would “drive a coach and horses” through the idea that Northern Ireland’s regional government was responsible for handling those issues locally.

Polling shows a majority of people in Northern Ireland support lifting the ban on same-sex marriage, which Parliament legalized in England and Wales in 2013. A poll last year by Amnesty International found that two-thirds of people in Northern Ireland believed that abortion should not be a crime and that, in the absence of regional government, Britain’s Parliament should act to change the law.


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