Women and Equalities Committee calls on UK government to “legislate as a matter of urgency” on NI abortion law

  • Report released today (25th April) by the Women and Equalities Committee rejects current government stance on abortion law in Northern Ireland and calls for reform from Westminster.
  • The cross-party report recommends that in the absence of the NI Executive “the UK Government must legislate as a matter of urgency to allow for access to abortion where there has been a diagnosis of fatal foetal anomaly”, and that the government set out a timeline to address breaches of women’s rights caused by the criminalisation of abortion.
  • The report also states that “devolution does not remove the UK Government’s own responsibilities to comply with its international obligations” and that “internal laws cannot be used to justify a failure to comply with human rights standards.”

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service, bpas, says the government cannot ignore this cross-party call for action.

A report released today by the cross-party Women and Equalities Committee, which is chaired by Maria Miller MP, has recommended that Westminster legislate to amend Northern Ireland’s strict abortion ban. The report also states that, in the absence of the NI Assembly, the UK Government must set out a framework and timeline to address breaches of women’s rights caused by the criminalisation of abortion.

The report, Abortion Law in Northern Ireland, is the result of an inquiry into the impact of the current abortion law on women, girls, and healthcare professionals in NI. The inquiry found growing concern about the numbers of women who are using abortion medication purchased online and therefore risking up to life imprisonment under the UK-wide 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. Medical professionals told the Committee that a climate of fear exists around the legality of referring women for treatment in England, and expressed concerns regarding their legal duty to report patients who may have used abortion pills to the police.

The report states that “in the absence of the NI Executive, the UK Government must legislate as a matter of urgency to allow for access to abortion where there has been a diagnosis of fatal foetal anomaly.” Alongside legislating for abortion in these circumstances, the report also states that in the absence of the NI Assembly the UK government “needs to set out a clear framework and timeline to address the breaches of women’s rights in Northern Ireland” identified by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW.) The Committee found “systemic violations” of rights through the criminalisation of abortion and recommended the decriminalisation of women and healthcare professionals by repeal of Sections 58 and 59 of the UK-wide Offences Against the Person Act.[i]

Since 2017, NI women have been able to access government-funded abortion care in England. However, the inquiry found that the UK Government’s funding for abortion provision in England is failing marginalised groups, including those in abusive relationships and those too ill to travel, who cannot make the journey to England for abortion care, and recommend that Government Equality Office publish an equality impact assessment on the scheme. 

Commenting on the report, Clare Murphy, Director of External Affairs at bpas, said:

“We welcome today’s report which makes it clear the UK Government has both the legal right and a moral imperative to legislate for abortion law reform in Northern Ireland.

“Every day, women and girls in Northern Ireland are forced to make the choice between travelling across the sea for abortion care, risking life imprisonment by using abortion pills purchased online, or continuing a pregnancy against their wishes. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women has made it clear that the current law breaches women’s human rights, and recommends the decriminalisation of abortion by the repeal of Sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act – reform which MPs across all parties have supported in the past. Polling has demonstrated that the people of Northern Ireland want to see the decriminalisation of abortion, and that they want Westminster to act. In the face of growing support for change – including among political parties in Northern Ireland - the government cannot continue to use devolution as an excuse for inaction.

“The Northern Ireland Assembly has not sat for over two years. The women and girls of Northern Ireland cannot wait any longer for access to legal abortion care at home. We urge the government to listen to the recommendations of this report, and allow parliament time to debate and vote on the decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland and across the UK.”

ENDS

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 80,000 women a year for 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.

[i] Sections 58 and 59 of the 1861 Offences Against the Persons Act criminalised abortion at any gestation in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The 1967 Abortion Act, which did not decriminalise abortion in England and Wales but provided medical professionals and women with an exemption providing they meet certain criteria, was not extended to Northern Ireland. Under the UK-wide OAPA, abortion is in effect banned in all but the most exceptional of circumstances Northern Ireland, and last year only 12 abortions were performed. A coalition of women’s rights organisations and healthcare bodies including the RCOG, Fawcett, and Women’s Aid have called for the decriminalisation of abortion by the repeal or reform of this legislation in Westminster.