Government must repeal the ancient legislation denying abortion access to women in Northern Ireland
Labour and Co-operative MP Stella Creasy calls on UK politicians to "get their house in order" and repeal the Offences Against the Persons Act 1861 which means that abortion in Northern Ireland is criminalised by life in prison, even in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities, rape or incest.
Amidst the outcry on abortion restrictions in America, its time the UK looked closer to home in the fight for human rights. Sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Persons Act 1861 mean that abortion in Northern Ireland is criminalised by life in prison. No exceptions - even in cases of fatal fetal abnormalities, rape or incest.
The threat of prosecution is not idle. Right now, the mother of a 15 year old who was in an abusive relationship is facing a criminal sentence after she was reported to police by her GP for buying abortion pills for her daughter. In recent years police have raided women’s houses for such pills and in 2016, a student received a suspended sentence for taking abortion pills at home after her flatmates reported her.
Denying legal access to abortion doesn’t stop abortion. It just risks the safety of women. In the last year alone, over 1000 women travelled from Northern Ireland to England to access abortion. Others who cannot travel buy abortion pills online, risking life in prison. Anyone who thinks asking women to travel by boat or plane to access abortion is acceptable should read the harrowing stories of the journeys made.
It’s not only MPs who have recognised treating women who live in Northern Ireland as second class citizens is unacceptable. Last year, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women found that Northern Ireland's abortion laws mean that women are 'subjected to grave and systematic violations of rights.' The UK Supreme Court found that the law was in need of 'radical reconsideration' and 'treated women like vehicles'. This month the UN Committee on Torture condemned the situation.
Despite such international censure and the clear evidence of the harm, this Government hides behind devolution to justify the denial of human rights; putting keeping themselves in coalition with the DUP ahead of treating all UK citizens equally. Yet these international bodies are clear- human rights are not a devolved matter. The United Nations has clearly stated ‘the United Kingdom cannot invoke its internal arrangements to justify its failure to revise the laws of Northern Ireland that violate the Convention’. They have said explicitly the UK cannot blame Stormont for their failure to act to protect the rights of the women in Northern Ireland.
Indeed, with no sign that Stormont will be reconvened anytime soon its up to Westminster Parliamentarians to hold this Government to account for its failure to protect human rights. On Tuesday just as we will be fighting for equal marriage for Northern Ireland, so too Parliament will have the chance to vote to ensure the Secretary of State meets these obligations under CEDAW. With the Domestic Abuse Bill due to return in the autumn the Government could do this by pledging to repeal this ancient legislation for all of the UK, giving the people of Northern Ireland the opportunity to create medical rather than criminal legislation for abortion access. Until this happens women in Northern Ireland will continue to suffer - and words of support for the women of Alabama and Georgia will ring hollow. They can’t wait for their politicians to get their house in order - they need action now.
Stella Creasy is the Labour and Co-operative MP for Walthamstow