June 29 (UPI) -- Expectant mothers living in Northern Ireland can now travel to Britain to receive state-funded abortions, government officials said Thursday.
More than 50 members of parliament backed a Labour-led amendment on Thursday to allow residents of Northern Ireland to seek a pregnancy termination at no cost in Britain. They were previously not eligible to have them covered by the socialized U.K. National Health Service, due mainly to Northern Ireland's stricter laws against abortion.
Previously, women from Northern Ireland had to either give birth to the child or travel to Britain for a private abortion. By contrast, abortions for women in Britain, Scotland and Wales are all covered by the NHS -- the kingdom's socialized healthcare program that's funded entirely by taxpayers, including residents of Northern Ireland.
Ministers, though, approved a policy change Thursday before the amendment from Labour MP Stella Creasy -- which had been attached to the Queen's speech, which sets the legislative agenda -- went up for a vote.
With the policy change announced by British Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond, Creasy subsequently withdrew her amendment.
"I'm delighted at today's announcement and satisfied by the commitments [the government] has given," Creasy said. "Let us send a message to women everywhere that in this parliament their voices will be heard and their rights upheld."
The British Pregnancy Advisory Service called the revision a "landmark moment."
"For years the women of Northern Ireland, despite being U.K. citizens and taxpayers, have not been entitled to NHS-funded treatment," the agency said in a statement.
"She has brought to the House an injustice -- and we will put that injustice right," British business secretary Greg Clark said of Creasy. "We can be united in protecting the rights she correctly defends."
A vote on Creasy's amendment would have been the first real test of a new agreement between Prime Minister Theresa May and Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party, which staunchly opposes abortion.
The DUP agreed earlier this week to keep May in power -- and the prime minister relies on the party for critical support her minority government. However, May acquiesced to the rule change Thursday amid signals that a rejection might have forced members of her Conservative Party to break ranks to support it.
It remains to be seen how the policy revision will affect May's relationship with the DUP going forward.
Opponents to abortion denounced the government's decision Thursday.
"This is a black day for unborn children, for mothers and for democracy," John Smeaton, CEO of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, said. "It's a great day for the abortion industry, which cares nothing about unborn children and for the welfare of women."
Earlier Thursday, Northern Ireland's highest court ruled that changes to abortion laws must be made by the country's legislative Stormont Assembly rather than the courts. That issue is expected to be settled by the British Supreme Court.