LONDON • British Prime Minister Theresa May faces a showdown with ministers and lawmakers in her Conservative Party after refusing to back reform of Northern Ireland's highly restrictive abortion rules following neighbouring Ireland's vote to liberalise its laws.
Voters in Ireland, a once deeply Catholic nation, backed the change by two to one, a far higher margin than any opinion poll in the run-up to the vote had predicted.
Mrs May is facing calls from her Cabinet and from opposition parties to scrap the strict rules on abortion in Northern Ireland, bringing the law in the province in line with the rest of the United Kingdom.
Ms Penny Mordaunt, Britain's Women and Equalities Minister, said the victory to legalise abortion should now bring change north of the Irish border.
"A historic and great day for Ireland and a hopeful one for Northern Ireland," Ms Mordaunt said. "That hope must be met."
A spokesman for Mrs May said on Sunday that changing the rules should only be undertaken by a government in Northern Ireland, which has been without a devolved executive since January last year after a power-sharing agreement collapsed.
Mrs May tweeted on Sunday to "congratulate the Irish people on their decision", but she made no mention of what the result would mean for Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, with even rape and fatal foetal abnormality not considered legal grounds for a termination. And unlike other parts of the United Kingdom, abortions are banned apart from when the life or mental health of the mother is in danger.
The penalty for undergoing or performing an unlawful abortion is life imprisonment.
Since the collapse of a power-sharing administration in Northern Ireland, British officials have been taking major decisions in the region and this means the government could legislate directly despite health being a devolved issue.
But any moves to change the law could destabilise the British government by antagonising the socially conservative Democratic Unionist Party, which Mrs May depends on for her parliamentary majority.
More than 130 members of Britain's Parliament, including lawmakers in the ruling Conservative Party, are prepared to back an amendment to a new domestic violence Bill to allow abortions in Northern Ireland, the Sunday Times newspaper reported.