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'Time for change': UK committee finds British government responsible for addressing Northern Ireland abortion laws

Laws in Northern Ireland mean that women cannot access an abortion unless there is a serious risk to their life.

Procession artwork march A woman calling for abortion reform in Northern Ireland takes part a march in Belfast. Source: Niall Carson/PA Images

A WESTMINSTER COMMITTEE has found that the British government is responsible for addressing Northern Ireland’s contentious abortion laws.

The Women and Equalities Committee’s report, published today, raises concerns with the North’s abortion laws and makes a series of recommendations on policy and practice governing abortion access for women in Northern Ireland.

It also calls on the UK Government to address the rights breaches found by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women in February 2018. 

Northern Ireland’s abortion laws have been a contentious issues for several years. In 2017, just over 900 women from the North of Ireland travelled for an abortion. 

British Prime Minister Theresa May has said that abortion is a matter for the devolved Stormont Assembly in Belfast. 

However, with the power-sharing assembly at Stormont suspended for nearly three years, today’s report has said that devolution does not absolve the the UK government as a whole of its own human rights obligations.

“Devolution does not remove the UK Government’s own responsibilities to comply with its international obligations and internal laws cannot be used to justify a failure to comply with human rights standards,” today’s report notes. 

Although it is “rightly the responsibility” of the Northern Ireland Assembly to legislate on abortion laws, there are also “specific obligations for the Northern Ireland Assembly not to pass Acts that are contrary to the UK’s international obligations.”

The current laws in Northern Ireland mean that women cannot access an abortion unless there is a serious risk to their life. The British abortion law that was brought in in 1967 does not extend to Northern Ireland.

After the result of the referendum on the Eighth Amendment last year, DUP leader Arlene Foster said that her party (which is a firmly against a change in abortion law) is taking note of the results.

Aontú leader Peadar Tóibín rejected the view that Westminster is responsible for changing Northern Ireland’s abortion laws.

“Reversing devolution on such a fundamental right as the right to life is contrary to the logic of devolution. Indeed Aontú believe that we need to devolve far more power from London to Ireland rather than less.”

He said that Aontú is the only all-Ireland party that supports the right to life.

“We seek a humane and compassionate response to unwanted pregnancies. Aontú will fight for the economic supports necessary so that all mothers have the confidence to raise their children to their full potential.”

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‘Systemic violations’

Amnesty International UK and the Family Planning Association have welcomed the Westminster report today and called on the UK Government to take action.

Grainne Teggart, Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland Campaign Manager, has said the report’s decision makes it clear that it is up to the UK government to deliver change. 

The Committee has made clear that the Government is responsible for delivering urgently needed change on abortion and calls for a timeline and framework to be set out.

“This must include addressing the human rights breaches found previously by a UN Committee, and their recommendations to decriminalise abortion.”

The UN report in February 2018 found that women are subjected to “grave and systematic violations of rights through being compelled to either travel outside Northern Ireland to procure a legal abortion or to carry their pregnancy to term.”

It also concluded that ”a restriction affecting only women from exercising reproductive choice, and resulting in women being forced to carry almost every pregnancy to full term, involves mental and physical suffering constituting violence against women.”

Teggart has said that devolution and the breakdown of power-sharing also should “not relieve the UK Government of their obligation to protect and promote the rights of women in Northern Ireland.”

“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.”

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