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Call for assurance on women’s rights

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Letter, Theresa May, no trade-off, women's rights, access to abortion, DUPAbortion is one element of the concerns being raised about the Conservatives governing with the DUP.

Representatives of women’s organisations, campaign groups, Trade Unions and writers have sent a strongly-worded letter to Prime Minister Theresa May asking for assurance that she will not allow women’s rights, and particularly women’s access to abortion, to be used in any kind of trade-off in her on-going attempts to form a government with the support of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), a party which opposes abortion.

This is one element of the concerns being raised about a government working with DUP support, the others being the DUP’s opposition to same-sex marriage, its support of creationism and its links to the Orange Order and Protestant paramilitary groups. And a row over a controversial Brexit donation.

There are also serious concerns about the effect an alliance with the government at Westminster and the DUP will have on the Good Friday Agreement and peace and stability in Northern Ireland – and the rest of the UK.

The DUP’s leader, Arlene Foster, who took over as Northern Ireland’s First Minister in January 2016, told the Guardian at the time that she intended to maintain the Democratic Unionist Party’s opposition to any reform of the province’s notoriously strict abortion laws, and said: “I would not want abortion to be as freely available here as it is in England and don’t support the extension of the 1967 act.”

This despite a high court ruling in November 2015 that denying abortions to women who had become pregnant through rape was a breach of British and European human rights laws.

The letter runs:

Dear Prime Minister,

We are writing to seek a categorical assurance from you that you will not allow women’s rights and, in particular, women’s access to abortion to be used in any kind of trade-off with the Democratic Unionist Party.  We would strongly oppose any proposal to re-open the issue of time-limits or to in any way restrict women’s access to abortion.

As you will know, unlike elsewhere in the UK, abortion is only permitted in Northern Ireland if a woman’s life is at risk or there is a permanent or serious risk to her mental or physical health. As a result, women in Northern Ireland are forced to travel to another part of the UK in order to access the same abortion services as women in the rest of the UK. This affects hundreds of women each year. Only those who can afford to travel and pay for treatment – as, despite being UK taxpayers, women resident in Northern Ireland are currently not entitled to NHS funded abortion care in England – can do so.  In 2015 a High Court Judge ruled that the current law on abortion in Northern Ireland was incompatible with human rights law. In his ruling, Mr Justice Horner said there was “one law for the rich and one law for the poor,” because the law makes it “much more difficult for those with limited means to travel to England.”

Women in Northern Ireland, left with few other options, have turned to the internet to buy abortion pills – but they are then criminalised for doing so. Instead of contemplating any compromise the UK government should be focussing on extending access to abortion for women in Northern Ireland to give them the same rights as others in the UK.  This is not a devolved matter but rather a question of their fundamental human rights.

We are a pro-choice country which supports a woman’s right to choose. In our last parliament, MPs across all the main political parties voted for a bill to decriminalise abortion up to 24 weeks of pregnancy in England and Wales.  50 years since the Abortion Act was passed, there is clearly an appetite to extend, not restrict, reproductive rights.

We urge you – do not allow the clock to be turned back on women’s rights, and do not turn your back on the women of Northern Ireland.

Yours,

Ann Furedi, Chief Executive, British Pregnancy Advisory Service; Sam Smethers, Chief Executive, Fawcett Society; Frances O’Grady, General Secretary, Trade Union Congress (TUC); Sharon Greene, National Women’s Officer, UNISON; Diana Holland, Assistant General Secretary: Equalities, Unite the union; Kevin Courtney, General Secretary, National Union of Teachers; Justine Roberts, Founder, Mumsnet; Caroline Criado Perez, writer; Polly Neate, Chief Executive, Women’s Aid Federation of England; Cathy Warwick, Chief Executive, Royal College of Midwives; Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones, President-elect, and Dr Olwen Williams, Vice President, Medical Women’s Federation; Natalie Biernat, Emma Campbell, Emma Gallen, Jill McManus Dawn Purvis, Kellie O’Dowd, Danielle Roberts, Alliance for Choice, Belfast; Mark Breslin, Director, FPA Northern Ireland; Andrew Copson, Chief Executive, Humanists UK; Jane Fisher, Director, Antenatal Results and Choices; Sarah Green, Co-Director, End Violence Against Women Coalition; Natika H Halil, Chief Executive, FPA; Vivienne Hayes MBE, CEO, Women’s Resource Centre (WRC); Lesley Hoggart, Leading Reproduction, Sexualities and Sexual Health Research Group at the Open University; Sally Hunt, General Secretary, Universities and College Union; Jayne Kavanagh, Principal Clinical Teaching Fellow, UCL Medical School; Ian Lawrence, General Secretary, NAPO; Annette Mansell-Green, Head of Employment Relations, British Dietetic Association; Wendy Savage, Doctors for a Woman’s Choice on Abortion; Rebecca Schiller, Chief Executive, Birthrights; Marsha Scott, Chief Exec of Scottish Women’s Aid; Sally Sheldon, Lawyers For Choice; Louise Sutherland, Director, Pankhurst Trust (incorporating Manchester Women’s Aid); and Kerry Abel, Chair, Abortion Rights.

  1. Just a reminder that if any one is or knows someone affected by the denial of abortion in Northern Ireland or the republic of Ireland, the UK’s only abortion fund can help. You’ll find the abortion support network at ASN.org.uk

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