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Abortion, Northern Ireland and women’s rights

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The government needs to set out a clear framework and timeline to address the breaches of women’s rights in Northern Ireland.

The Women and Equalities Committee published its report on abortion law in Northern Ireland recently.

The report said that the absence of an Executive in Northern Ireland since 2017 means that there is no devolved government to respond to significant developments; no scrutiny bodies to make sure policies are working well; and no scrutiny of the use of UK Government funds for women and girls seeking abortion in England and a failure to respond to international human rights obligations.

Since January 2017, when the Northern Ireland Assembly ceased functioning, there have been several significant developments relating to abortion in Northern Ireland, including:

a UN Committee finding ‘grave’ and ‘systematic’ breaches of women’s rights, and the UK Supreme Court identifying a breach of human rights in relation to cases of fatal foetal abnormality or where the pregnancy has resulted from rape or incest;

the introduction of UK Government funding for women and girls to access free abortion services in England;

evidence that significant numbers of abortion pills purchased online are being sent to Northern Ireland; and

there has not been a follow-up to a report on fatal foetal abnormality commissioned by Northern Ireland ministers.

The UN body monitoring women’s rights looked at this issue and found that there were ‘grave’ violations in relation to cases of severe foetal impairment, including fatal foetal abnormality, and rape or incest, and ‘systematic’ violations in the criminalisation of abortion and highly restrictive access.

The report recommends that:

the Government needs to set out a clear framework and timeline to address the breaches of women’s rights in Northern Ireland that the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women identified if there is no government in Northern Ireland to take this action;

In identifying a breach of human rights in relation to cases of fatal foetal abnormality, rape and incest, the UK Supreme Court did not make a declaration of incompatibility because the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, which brought the case, did not have standing; and

the UK Government must set out a timetable for rectifying the error in the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission’s standing within the next six months so that an individual victim, such as a victim of rape or incest, does not have to take a case to court.

There is also, the report found, uncertainty about the legality of doctors in Northern Ireland referring patients to the UK Government-funded scheme providing free abortions in England and there can be a conflict between healthcare professionals’ duties to their patients, and the law and guidance on abortion in Northern Ireland.

The report concluded that this is unacceptable and recommends that:

the Government Equalities Office should publish its legal advice on the scheme funding women and girls from Northern Ireland to access abortions in England; then

the Department of Health for Northern Ireland should reissue guidance for healthcare professionals making it clear that referring patients to the funded scheme is not unlawful.

The report also reveals that UK Government’s funding for abortion provision in England is not accessed equally by different groups of women and girls.

In addition, women and girls who are pregnant as a result of rape or incest may face prosecution under Northern Ireland law if they have not reported the offence to the police.

The report recommends that:

the Government Equalities Office should publish an equality impact assessment on the UK Government funded scheme and should work with community organisations supporting marginalised groups of women and girls to develop an information campaign to explain the provision;

the Government Equalities Office should work with the Home Office to develop pathways for migrant women to travel to England to access the free provision; and

the Attorney General for Northern Ireland should publish human rights guidance stating that it will rarely be in the public interest to prosecute survivors of rape and incest, and professionals treating them, who have not reported the offence to the police.

The Committee’s Chair, Maria Miller MP, said: “We heard evidence from a wide range of witnesses both in Northern Ireland – in Belfast, Antrim and Derry/Londonderry – and in Westminster.

“These included doctors, nurses and midwives, lawyers, Ministers and officials, organisations representing a range of views, and women who spoke to us about their own experiences.

“The lack of clarity about the current legal situation is creating confusion, fear and inequality. Our report sets out action which the government must take to address this.

“The situation of a woman or girl who became pregnant as a result of rape or incest having to pursue a court case highlights precisely why it should not depend on an individual victim to take a case to court. This must be rectified urgently.”

“We heard of doctors facing a potential conflict between their duty of care to their patients and the law, and between their duty of confidentiality and the law,” she continued.

“They still have not been given guidance on referring women to the UK Government-funded scheme providing free abortions in England – which started in 2017. This must be published immediately.

“In practice the scheme is more accessible to some women than others, with problems for women on low incomes, or who are too ill to travel, who are facing domestic violence and abuse, have insecure immigration status, or who are not registered with a GP.

“We must ensure that women who are vulnerable or marginalised have the same access to services as everyone else.

“Women and girls who are pregnant as a result of rape or incest may face prosecution if they have not reported the offence to the police under Northern Ireland law.

“The Government must address these concerns by issuing human rights guidance.”

To read the full report, click here.

Please email your MP – you can use this link – to ask them to address the ongoing breaches of women’s rights in Northern Ireland caused by the criminalisation of abortion.

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