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NI civil society tells May referendum is neither needed nor wanted for abortion reform

  • UN committee has already urged government to decriminalise abortion 
  • Decriminalisation would be most practical way of achieving change in NI and protecting women and doctors from prosecution

Bpas today welcomes a letter from women's advocacy and civil groups in Northern Ireland to the Prime Minister Theresa May, calling on her to take urgent action on the restrictions on abortion in Northern Ireland.

Dozens of groups and individuals including ‎the Women's Aid Foundation Northern Ireland,  the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the ‎Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People, Koulla Yiasouma, as well as doctors, academics and performers, have also rejected the proposal of a referendum as "neither required nor wanted", instead urging Westminster to act on this breach of human rights.

The letter notes the recent report from the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which accused the UK of subjecting women and girls "to grave and systematic violations of rights" through being compelled to either travel outside Northern Ireland to procure a legal abortion or to illegally self-administer abortion pills without legal recourse to emergency health services.

CEDAW recommended the decriminalisation of women undergoing abortion and those caring for them by the repeal of sections 58 and 59 of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, which made it a criminal offence for any woman to undergo an abortion and anyone to assist her in doing so.

Removing these criminal underpinnings would clear the way for Northern Ireland to develop its own country specific abortion framework, drawn up by health bodies, healthcare professionals, commissioners and patient groups.

Clare Murphy, Director of External Affairs at bpas said:

"Decriminalising abortion would mean that Westminster could fulfill its duties under human rights obligations while at the same time enabling Northern Ireland itself to develop an abortion framework that meets the needs of the women who live there. ‎This would not mean imposing anything, it would mean sweeping away a 150 year old clause passed by Westminster that has no place in the modern world. Bpas will provide care in England for women from Northern Ireland for as long as they need it, but this is care which could and should be provided to many women at home."

Ruairi Rowan, Senior Advocacy Officer at the FPA Northern Ireland, and a co-signatory of the letter to the Prime minister said:

"For 30 years FPA have provided a Pregnancy Choices Counselling Service in Northern Ireland. Every day we see the impact that restrictive abortion law has on women.

“The law puts women’s health at risk, causes unnecessary distress, and undermines the quality of care from service-providers. Northern Ireland urgently needs a law fit for the 21stcentury.

“There is no need for a referendum before such legislation is introduced. Parliament is sovereign and the UK Government has the power to act. The 1967 Abortion Act does not comply with international human rights standards as it fails to decriminalise abortion and would continue to leave women vulnerable to prosecution for purchasing pills online.

“Abortion is a healthcare matter, not a criminal matter and the law across the UK must reflect this‎."

‎Full text of the letter can be found here.‎


For media enquiries please call 0207 061 3377, 07788 725 185 or email press@bpas.org.

Notes to Editors:

About bpas

bpas is a charity which sees more than 70,000 women a year and provides reproductive healthcare services including pregnancy counselling, abortion care, miscarriage management and contraception, at clinics across the UK. It supports and advocates for reproductive choice. More information can be found at bpas.org.