Belfast (AFP) - The prosecution of women in Northern Ireland over abortion has become a key campaign issue ahead of regional elections on Thursday, with unprecedented political support for reforming the law.
A 21-year-old woman was prosecuted earlier this year for taking pills to induce a miscarriage, while a mother has been charged after ordering medication over the Internet to help her daughter end an unwanted pregnancy.
The prosecutions have fuelled a campaign against one of Europe's most stringent abortion laws and a backlash by anti-abortion campaigners and the Catholic Church who have urged voters to boycott candidates favouring reform.
"I am not coming at this from an ideological viewpoint but as someone who lives in the real world," Ruth Patterson, an independent unionist candidate in the South Belfast constituency.
Patterson is one of a number of candidates calling for an extension of a more liberal abortion law covering the rest of the United Kingdom to Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland currently bans abortion in all cases except when the life of the mother is in danger.
More socially conservative than most parts of mainland Britain, it never adopted the laws on the issue governing the rest of the UK which were passed in 1967.
The only two European states with stricter laws -- total bans on abortion -- are Malta and the Vatican. Ireland also has tough legislation banning abortion in the vast majority of cases.
- A 'backward' place -
Cracks in the status quo, however, are beginning to appear.
The incumbent power-sharing administration in the UK province unites historic foes the Democratic Unionists -- a mainly Protestant party which wants Northern Ireland to stay in the UK -- and Sinn Fein, Catholic republicans who want a united Ireland.
Unionists and republicans were divided during three decades of sectarian unrest which killed around 3,500 people and was largely ended by a 1998 peace deal.
The Democratic Unionists pointedly fail to mention abortion in their election manifesto.
Sinn Fein has pledged to legislate in favour of abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, rape and incest.
Launching Sinn Fein's manifesto this week, deputy first minister Martin McGuinness, claimed rival parties had "run away" from the issue of abortion.
McGuinness said there would be "no hiding place" in future, adding that he did not want to live in a "backward" place.
Pro-choice groups have staged protests against the three-month sentence suspended for two years given to the 21-year-old woman who aborted her foetus, which spares her jail but means she now has a criminal record.
Anti-abortion groups are instead demanding a retrial, claiming that her sentence was too lenient.
The case of the mother who procured abortion pills for her daughter and now faces possible life imprisonment has been adjourned until later this month.
Susan McKay, an author of several works on Northern Ireland society and a former head of the National Women's Council of Ireland, said the recent court cases will encourage politicians to reform.
"The majority of people who were in favour of adopting reasonably liberal abortion legislation in a recent poll will be horrified to see women dragged through the courts in this way," she told AFP.
"Even Sinn Fein will be uncomfortable because even what they are advocating is fairly conservative and will not address cases such as we have seen recently," she added.
- 'Thou shalt not kill' -
Catholic bishops intervened directly in the debate last week in the form of a statement urging people not to vote for abortion reform candidates.
"From a moral point of view, there is no such things as 'limited' abortion," they said.
"Abortion is always the deliberate and intentional taking of an innocent, vulnerable human life, and a direct breach of the commandment: 'Thou shalt not kill'."
But the majority of Catholics are still expected to vote for Sinn Fein.
The party will likely return to the devolved power-sharing administration after the election and be in a position to put abortion reform on the agenda of the next government.
In February, a motion on the issue was defeated by lawmakers in the Northern Ireland Assembly but reformers say it helped highlight the plight of women who face having to carry a foetus to full term even if it has no chance of survival outside the womb.
It also shone a spotlight on the issue of thousands of women who travel to the British mainland every year to obtain legal abortions.
Groups such as Amnesty International are intent on keeping up the pressure.
"Northern Ireland’s abortion law must be changed to bring it into line with international standards," said Patrick Corrigan, its Northern Ireland director. "Abortion must be decriminalised."