The Women and Equalities Committee says the UK government has a responsibility to intervene in Northern Ireland’s abortion laws, which ban terminations in virtually all circumstances.
A cross-party group of MPs has called on the UK government to liberalise Northern Ireland’s draconian abortion laws, following a landmark inquiry.
Under Northern Ireland’s current Victorian-era abortion law, which has been in place since 1861, terminations are banned in virtually all circumstances – including in cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormalities. It is also a criminal offence to administer or supply drugs or instruments for the purpose of procuring an abortion, meaning that people who help others access abortions – whether they are medical staff, friends or family members – can be prosecuted.
Abortion was legalised in England, Scotland and Wales under the Abortion Act 1967, but this legislation has never been extended to Northern Ireland. As a result, thousands of women in the country have been forced to go through with unwanted pregnancies, endure the expense, disruption and potential trauma of travelling abroad for a termination, or risk having an illegal abortion at home. And the risks are real. In 2016, a 19-year-old woman took abortion pills at her flat in Belfast. After her housemates reported her to the police, she was handed a three-month suspended prison sentence.
In theory, a devolved government in Northern Ireland should be responsible for deciding on any changes to the country’s laws. But Northern Ireland has been without a functioning government for over two years, ever since nationalist party Sinn Féin quit its power-sharing arrangement with Arlene Foster’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
That means that no amendments to the law can currently be made. And while Theresa May’s government could intervene, the Prime Minister has so far steadfastly refused to do so, insisting that a Northern Irish government should be responsible for Northern Irish laws.
But the new report by the Women and Equalities Committee rejects the Prime Minister’s argument, and calls on her government to act. It also lays out several steps that the government should take, including setting out a timeline to address the ways in which women’s human rights are breached by Northern Ireland’s abortion legislation.
The report, which follows a lengthy inquiry into the current state of abortion access and legislation in Northern Ireland, acknowledges that the Northern Ireland Assembly should have the right to decide on Northern Irish laws. But it also notes that the Assembly is required not to pass laws that contradict the UK’s international human rights obligations – and Northern Ireland’s abortion law has repeatedly been found to violate international human rights standards.
In 2018, an investigation by the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) found that “thousands of women and girls in Northern Ireland are subjected to grave and systematic violations of rights” as a result of the country’s restrictive abortion law. “The situation in Northern Ireland constitutes violence against women that may amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,” CEDAW vice-chair Ruth Halperin-Kaddari said at the time.
Sarah Ewart, a Northern Irish woman who was forced to travel to England for an abortion after being told her pregnancy had been diagnosed with a fatal foetal abnormality, welcomed the conclusions of the inquiry. A former Stylist Woman of the Week, Ewart brought her case to Belfast High Court on the basis that her human rights had been breached by Northern Ireland’s abortion law. The judgment is currently pending on her case.
“Northern Ireland’s archaic abortion laws have left women like me suffering for far too long,” Ewart said. “The UK government has turned a blind eye and ignored the hurt caused to me and others in my circumstances. I hope the recommendations signal a turning point and finally brings an end to the harm caused.”
Ewart has been supported throughout her case by Amnesty. Grainne Teggart, Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland campaign manager, described the report as “a welcome and urgent intervention that the UK Government cannot ignore”.
“Devolution does not relieve the UK government of their obligation to protect and promote the rights of women in Northern Ireland,” Teggart said.
“Inaction is no longer an option. The UK government cannot remain complicit in the harm caused by the existing abortion regime – the time for change is now.”
The NGO Alliance for Choice contributed extensively to the Women and Equalities Committee report. Jill McManus, a representative for Doctors for Choice UK and Medical Students for Choice in Belfast, said that Westminster must not “delay any further in acting on these findings”.
“The report clearly shows that the archaic laws governing abortion care in Northern Ireland restrict and prevent healthcare staff from providing adequate support to women and pregnant people,” she said.
Conservative MP Maria Miller, the chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, said that “the lack of clarity about the current legal situation is creating confusion, fear and inequality” for women in Northern Ireland. The government, she said, must take steps to address this.
Labour MP Stella Creasy is one of several politicians from England, Scotland and Wales who have called on May’s government to intervene in Northern Ireland’s abortion laws. She said that the domestic abuse bill currently going through parliament would be “the ideal opportunity” for the government to put the committee’s recommendations into action and decriminalise abortion.
“This government can’t hide behind devolution to defend denying the women of Northern Ireland their basic human rights because they want to please the DUP,” Creasy said.
“It’s time for every woman in Northern Ireland to be treated with respect – not just Arlene Foster.”
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