More than 170 cross-party, cross-nation representatives call for NI abortion law reform

The following letter to the editor was published by the Sunday Times today.

Co-ordinated by Stella Creasy MP and signed by more than 170 Members of Parliament, Members of the House of Lords, Members of the Legislative Assembly (Northern Ireland), and TDs and Senators (members of the Irish Parliament), it calls, in advance of this week's British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, for Westminster to take action to reform abortion law in Northern Ireland. 

Figures released today show that 28 women a week have been forced to travel from Northern Ireland to England for abortion care this year - an increase from 17 women a week in 2017.

Stella Creasy MP said that today's letter was:

“An unprecedented intervention for politicians from across both Ireland and the UK to come together in acting on their obligations according to the Good Friday agreement. It is untenable for the UK government not to act to address this concern as a priority.”

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Letter to the Editor: Abortion reform for Northern Ireland

We the undersigned, as British and Irish parliamentarians, remain proud of the achievement of the Good Friday Agreement 20 years on. We respect the responsibility it places on both governments as the co-guarantors of the agreement to uphold and protect the human rights of all the residents of Northern Ireland.

In 1998, when parties signed up to the agreement, they did so on the basis that one of the foundation stones of the new political dispensation in Northern Ireland was that laws would be compliant with the European convention on human rights (ECHR). This responsibility cannot be abandoned for political expediency; and it falls to each of us to help ensure that these commitments are proactively upheld.

Yet now we recognise this commitment is being tested. The recent referendum on the repeal of the eighth amendment to the constitution of Ireland/Bunreacht na hÉireann, saw the people in the south of Ireland vote by a large majority to rewrite the Irish state’s existing abortion law. This has highlighted the situation north of the border where action is urgently needed to protect the human rights of women.

Currently, abortion law in Northern Ireland is defined by one 157-year old piece of British legislation – the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 (Oapa). Section 58 of this legislation makes it a crime for a woman, pregnant or not, to take any medication or use any instrument to attempt to cause her own abortion.

In the original legislation, the penalty for this was “to be kept in penal servitude for life” – a punishment which is now up to life in prison. Section 59 makes it a crime to assist in causing an abortion – which includes doctors treating patients in line with best medical practice. The penalty for this is up to five years in prison.

Last month, the UK Supreme Court issued a statement that Northern Ireland’s abortion law treated women as “vehicles”, is “untenable”, and is in need of “radical reconsideration” as is incompatible with article 8 of the ECHR.

The court stated: “Those responsible for ensuring the compatibility of Northern Ireland law with the convention rights will no doubt recognise and take account of these conclusions, at as early a time as possible, by considering whether and how to amend the law, in the light of the ongoing suffering being caused by it.”

This follows the statement by the UN committee on the elimination of discrimination against women (Cedaw) which told the British government in February that abortion law in Northern Ireland breached the human rights of citizens living there. It stated that “denial of abortion and criminalisation of abortion amounts to discrimination against women because it is a denial of a service that only women need”.

Both the UN and the UK Supreme Court have considered the case for the British government to repeal the relevant offences in the Oapa. Yet despite these statements, the UK government has refused to act upon both the UN Cedaw ruling and the supreme court, arguing instead that this is a “devolved matter” for the Northern Ireland Assembly alone to address.

Without an assembly or executive in place for more than 18 months, this therefore raises the prospect that a victim of rape will be required to take the British government to court herself to vindicate these rights.

It is our belief that the current situation for women cannot be ignored or allowed to continue. Indeed, the current lack of devolved institutions also presents a lacuna for the protection of human rights across the board.

The Good Friday Agreement set out rights equivalency protections on a north-south basis. The Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement recently warned of the risks of creating a difference in rights protections on a north-south basis, and recommended that the UK and Irish governments ensure the safeguarding of the north-south equivalency of rights on an ongoing basis.

We also note that Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has recognised the current fragmentation of rights across these islands in relation to abortion: “Any right or freedom that an Irish citizen has in Ireland, any right or freedom that a British citizen has in Britain, should be enjoyed by Irish and British citizens in Northern Ireland and that applies to things like marriage equality and abortion rights.”

Without urgent action, women and girls living in Northern Ireland will continue to be unable to access safe healthcare at home. In 2017, 919 women and girls were forced to travel across to Britain to access a safe abortion, while others took illegal abortion pills in their bedrooms and bathrooms without the support of a medical professional, and others faced criminal prosecution.

We welcome the announcement that the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference (BIIGC) shall be convened in London on July 25. We hope that the BIIGC will urgently agree a pathway forward to adequately provide for human rights — including compliant healthcare access for women and girls living in Northern Ireland.

We also recognise that an essential first step in delivering this human right would be for the Westminster parliament to repeal sections 58 and 59 of Oapa and decriminalise abortion and we urge Westminster to set out an explicit legislative timetable as to when it will do so.

This is the first and critical step to ending the treatment of British and Irish women living in Northern Ireland as second-class citizens, who do not enjoy the same access to healthcare as their counterparts do across these islands.

We therefore call for our respective governments to act to ensure that the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement is upheld and the human rights of the women living in Northern Ireland are respected.

 

Signatories

Stella Creasy MP, Labour

Carine Murphy TD, Kildare North

Claire Hanna MLA, South Belfast

Clare Bailey MLA, South Belfast

Colum Eastwood MLA, Foyle

Kellie Armstrong MLA, Strangford

Naomi Long MLA, Belfast East

Paula Bradshaw MLA, South Belfast

Roisin Shortall TD Dublin North-West

Stephen Farry MLA Newtownards

Steven Agnew MLA North Down

Stewart Dickson MLA East Antrim

Senator Colette Kelleher, Independent

Senator Alice-Mary Higgins, Independent, leader of the Civil Engagement Group

Senator Lynn Ruane, Independent

Senator Frances Black, Independent

Catherine Connolly TD, Independent

Senator David Norris, Independent

Senator Catherine Noone, Fine Gael and chair of Joint Oireachtas Committee on the eighth amendment

Lisa Chambers TD, Fianna Fail

Senator Ned O’Sullivan, Fianna Fail

Senator Lorraine Clifford-Lee, Fianna Fail

Senator Catherine Ardagh, Fianna Fail

Joan Burton TD, Labour

Alan Kelly TD, Labour

Jan O’Sullivan TD, Labour

Willie Penrose TD, Labour

Brendan Ryan TD, Labour

Sean Sherlock TD, Labour

Senator Ivana Bacik, Labour

Senator Kevin Humphreys, Labour

Senator Ged Nash, Labour

Senator Aodhan O Riordain, Labour

Richard Boyd Barrett TD, People Before Profit

Brid Smith TD, People Before Profit

Gino Kenny TD, People Before Profit

Catherine Murphy TD, Social Democrats

Roisin Shortall TD, Social Democrats

Mary Lou McDonald TD, Uachtaran Sinn Fein and Dail group leader

Michelle O’Neill MLA, Leas-Uachtaran Sinn Féin and MLA group leader

Senator Rose Conway-Walsh, Sinn Fein Seanad group leader

Martina Anderson MEP, Sinn Fein European parliament group leader

Paul Maskey MP, Sinn Fein

Baroness Andrews, Labour

Baroness Blackstone, Independent Labour

Baroness Brown of Cambridge, Crossbench

Baroness Burt of Solihull, Liberal Democrat

Baroness Corston, Labour

Baroness Gould of Potternewton, Labour

Baroness Harris of Richmond, Liberal Democrat

Baroness Healy of Primrose Hill, Labour

Baroness Hughes of Stretford, Labour

Baroness Hussein-Ece, Liberal Democrat

Baroness Jay of Paddington, Labour

Baroness Jolly, Liberal Democrat

Baroness Kennedy of Cradley, Labour

Baroness Kidron, Crossbench

Baroness Lister of Burtersett, Labour

Baroness Massey of Darwin, Labour

Baroness Murphy, Crossbench

Baroness Northover, Liberal Democrat

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon, Labour

Baroness Thornton, Labour

Baroness Tonge, Non-affiliated

Baroness Walmsley, Liberal Democrat

Baroness Warsi, Conservative

Baroness Young of Old Scone, Labour

Lord Adonis, Labour

Lord Balfe, Conservative

Lord Cashman, Labour

Lord Dubs, Labour

Lord Dykes, Crossbench

Lord Faulkner of Worcester, Labour

Lord Freyberg, Crossbench

Lord Goldsmith, Labour

Lord Judd, Labour

Lord Kennedy of Southwark, Labour

Lord MacKenzie of Culkein, Labour

Lord Maginnis of Drumglass, Independent Ulster Unionist

Lord Rea, Labour

Lord Rennard, Liberal Democrat

Lord Rooker, Labour

Lord Steel of Aikwood, Liberal Democrat

Lord Triesman, Labour

Lord Wood of Anfield, Labour

Lord Wrigglesworth, Liberal Democrat

Adrian Bailey MP, Labour

Alex Norris MP, Labour

Andrew Gwynne MP, Labour

Angela Eagle MP, Labour

Angela Rayner MP, Labour

Angela Smith MP, Labour

Ann Clwyd MP, Labour

Ann Coffey MP, Labour

Anna McMorrin MP, Labour

Anna Soubry MP, Conservative

Anna Turley MP, Labour

Barbara Keeley MP, Labour

Catherine West MP, Labour

Chi Onwurah MP, Labour

Chris Bryant MP, Labour

Chris Elmore MP, Labour

Christine Jardine MP, Liberal Democrat

Dan Poulter MP, Conservative

Danielle Rowley MP, Labour

Dawn Butler MP, Labour

Debbie Abrahams MP, Labour

Diana Johnson MP, Labour

Ed Vaizey MP, Conservative

Emma Hardy MP, Labour

Emma Reynolds MP, Labour

Gareth Snell MP, Labour

Ged Killen MP, Labour

George Freeman MP, Conservative

Harriet Harman MP, Labour

Helen Goodman MP, Labour

Helen Hayes MP, Labour

Ian Lucas MP, Labour

Ian Murray MP, Labour

Jeff Smith MP, Labour

Jess Phillips MP, Labour

Jimmy Frith MP, Labour

Jo Stevens MP, Labour

Jo Swinson MP, Liberal Democrat

Joan Ryan MP, Labour

Julie Elliot MP, Labour

Karen Buck MP, Labour

Karin Smyth MP, Labour

Kate Green MP, Labour

Kate Osamor MP, Labour

Laura Smith MP, Labour

Layla Moran MP, Liberal Democrat

Liz Kendall MP, Labour

Liz McInnes MP, Labour

Liz Saville-Roberts MP, Plaid Cymru

Liz Twist MP, Labour

Louise Haigh MP, Labour

Luciana Berger MP, Labour

Lucy Powell MP, Labour

Lyn Brown MP, Labour

Lady Hodge MP, Labour

Martin Whitfield MP, Labour

Mike Gapes MP, Labour

Neil Coyle MP, Labour

Nicky Morgan MP, Conservative

Norman Lamb MP, Liberal Democrat

Owen Smith MP, Labour

Paul Blomfield MP, Labour

Paul Sweeney MP, Labour

Paul Williams MP, Labour

Paula Sheriff MP, Labour

Peter Bottomley MP, Conservative

Peter Kyle MP, Labour

Richard Burden MP, Labour

Roberta Blackman-Woods MP, Labour

Rosie Duffield MP, Labour

Rupa Huq MP, Labour

Ruth Cadbury MP, Labour

Ruth Smeeth MP, Labour

Sandy Martin MP, Labour

Sarah Champion MP, Labour

Sarah Wollaston MP, Conservative

Sharon Hodgson MP, Labour

Siobhain McDonagh MP, Labour

Stephen Doughty MP, Labour

Steve Reed MP, Labour

Thelma Walker MP, Labour

Tim Loughton MP, Conservative

Tom Watson MP, deputy leader, Labour

Tonia Antoniazzi MP, Labour

Tony Lloyd MP, Labour

Tracy Brabin MP, Labour

Wes Streeting MP, Labour

Yasmin Qureshi MP, Labour

Yvette Cooper MP, Labour