Ministers must address claim that women's rights breached by Northern Ireland abortion laws, MPs warn

Posted On: 
25th April 2019

The Government must urgently address the “grave” and “systemic” breaches of women’s rights flagged up in relation to Northern Ireland's abortion laws, MPs have warned.

The cast of the sitcom Derry Girls joined a protests over Northern Ireland's abortion laws in Westminster earlier this year
Credit: 
PA Images

The Women and Equalities Committee said there was escalating “confusion, fear and inequality” over the current legal situation in the province, since the collapse of its assembly in 2017.

Unlike in the rest of the UK, abortion is illegal in Northern Ireland except for in exceptional cases, such as to save the mother's life or where there is a serious risk to her physical or mental health.

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MPs say that the absence of devolved government has led to a lack of scrutiny over the policy and the impact of UK Government funding for abortion services in England, and has led to a failure to respond to international human rights obligations.

Committee chair Maria Miller 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."

MPs are calling on the Government to set out a "clear framework" and timeline to tackle the breaches found by the UN’s committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, and by the UK Supreme Court.

The international body concluded there were “systemic” violations in the criminalisation of abortion, and “grave” violations in cases of severe foetal impairment, and rape or incest.

Demands are also being made for the UK Government to give the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission powers to ensure victims of rape or incest do not have to take their cases to court.

Ms Miller added: "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."

The committee also raised concerns over the inequality around access to the UK government funded scheme for those seeking abortions in England compared with those from Northern Ireland.

The committee's chair continued: “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.”

A UK Government spokesperson said in response to the findings: "We welcome the Committee's work on this important issue.

"As abortion is a devolved matter, the best way forward is for locally accountable politicians in Northern Ireland to make decisions. We want to see devolved government restored at the earliest opportunity. 

"The Government is carefully considering the Committee's report and recommendations and will respond to the report in due course."