Northern Ireland rejects change to abortion law
Proposals to relax Northern Ireland's strict abortion laws have been rejected.
Stormont Assembly members voted by a majority of 59 to 40 against amending legislation to allow terminations in cases of fatal foetal abnormality and sexual crime.
Although the lengthy debate ran to almost midnight, the outcome was fairly predictable after early indications that the Democratic Unionists and SDLP would not support the changes.
Unlike other parts of the UK, the 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland, where abortions are banned except where the life or mental health of the mother is in danger.
Anyone who performs an illegal termination could be jailed for life.
Hundreds of women travel to other parts of the UK to access abortion services every year.
A proposal to legalise the termination of pregnancies where the foetus cannot survive outside the womb was tabled by Alliance Party MLAs Stewart Dickson and Trevor Lunn.
Mr Lunn accused opponents of lacking compassion and choked back tears as he recalled having to make the "painful" decision to access a termination because of a fatal foetal abnormality many years ago.
His baby died while arrangements were being made, the Assembly was told.
"The pain of that decision lives with us today," said Mr Lunn.
"This is important. It is important to women and to men and it is important for the self respect of this little country. Sooner or later we are going to have to do something about it."
The amendment relating to pregnancies which are the result of rape or incest was put forward by Anna Lo, also of the Alliance Party.
Ahead of the debate the DUP said it wanted the Health Minister to convene a commission to examine the issue of abortion and report back in six months.
A spokesman said: "We believe that this issue should best be dealt with in a measured way rather than in haste and without the benefit of appropriate scrutiny. Rushed law can often turn out to be bad law."
The idea was supported by the SDLP and the party's Dolores Kelly raised concerns about paving the way for "abortion on demand".
Others, including the Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt, accused the DUP of using a "mechanism" to delay a potentially contentious decision for electoral purposes.
Mr Nesbitt said: "It is Dickensian.
"This is Bleak House we are in today - in the chancery courts waiting day after day after day after day for a decision that never comes.
"How cruel to those campaigning because they want relief from us."
However, DUP leader Arlene Foster hit back, saying: "How if there is no petition of concern, how will this not be a majority/minority outcome?"
Sinn Fein said its MLAs would support a relaxation of the strict laws.
"There is no place at births for politicians," said Catriona Ruane. "Long-fingering this does a disservice to women."
The vexed issue of abortion has long divided opinion in Northern Ireland.
It was thrust back on to the political agenda in 2013 when young mother Sarah Ewart went public about having to travel for an abortion after being told her baby had no skull and could not survive after birth.
Last year a High Court judge ruled that the failure to provide legal exceptions breached human rights obligations.
In cases of fatal foetal abnormality, Mr Justice Mark Horner concluded the mother's inability to access an abortion was a "gross interference with her personal autonomy" while a disproportionate burden was placed on victims when a sexual crime occurred.
His declaration of incompatibility did not immediately lift the ban but placed an onus on the Assembly to legislate.
Stormont's chief legal adviser attorney general John Larkin QC is among those who are opposed to changing the law and has outlined concerns that the move could breach obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).
Precious Life, one of the largest pro life organisations in the region vowed to "expose" any MLA who voted in favour of the new legislation.
Amnesty International said failing to reform the law would be a "betrayal of women" while the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission urged political action.