London -The Northern Ireland regional assembly voted against relaxing strict abortion laws on Wednesday, despite a ruling by the Belfast High Court that the legislation breaches human rights.
After a debate that ran to almost midnight, members of the Stormont Assembly voted 59 to 40 against a proposal to allow terminations in cases of sexual crime or fatal foetal abnormality -- when the baby has no chance of survival after birth.
The reform was proposed by representatives of the centrist Alliance Party, including Trevor Lunn, who recalled his family's experience of trying to access abortion in the case of a fatal foetal abnormality.
"The pain of that decision lives with us today," he told the Assembly.
"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."
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The rejection was expected after the right-wing Democratic Unionist Party, the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party indicated they would oppose the reform, saying more time was needed to examine the issue.
Unlike the rest of the United Kingdom, the law in Northern Ireland currently bans abortion unless it is required to save a woman's life or if there is a serious risk to her health.
Hundreds of women travel out of socially conservative Northern Ireland for terminations each year.
In November, the Belfast High Court found that Northern Ireland's legislation was in breach of human rights law, but any reform would have to be decided by the Assembly.
Ahead of the vote, rights group Amnesty International said moves to oppose the reform were a "betrayal of women and girls".
"Northern Ireland's abortion law dates from Victorian times, is among the most restrictive in the world and is in urgent need of reform," Northern Ireland programme director Patrick Corrigan said.