COMMONS

New inquiry: Abortion law in Northern Ireland

20 September 2018

The Women and Equalities Committee launches inquiry looking into abortion law in Northern Ireland.

Background

In Northern Ireland, abortion is only legal in circumstances where the woman’s life is in danger or the pregnancy poses a serious, permanent or long-term risk to her health and wellbeing.

In 2016, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women conducted an inquiry on the subject of access to abortion in Northern Ireland. It concluded that the rights of women in Northern Ireland were being violated by restrictions on access to abortion, and argued that devolution of power over criminal law to the Northern Ireland Assembly did not remove the responsibility of the UK Government for this matter.

A report by a working group commissioned by the former Health and Justice Ministers in Northern Ireland, published in April 2018, recommended that the law should be changed to allow abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality.

In June 2018, the UK Supreme Court dismissed an appeal against the law on abortion in Northern Ireland on the grounds that the body which brought the case, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, did not have standing to do so. Although the Court therefore did not make a formal declaration of incompatibility (which would require the UK Government to take action), a majority of the judges stated their view that the laws are incompatible with Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights—on respect for private and family life—in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, rape and incest.

Chair's comments

Committee Chair Maria Miller MP said,

"The Women and Equalities Select Committee has decided to hold a formal Inquiry into abortion law in Northern Ireland following renewed concerns raised by CEDAW committee about restricted access and the UK Supreme Court ruling in June. The committee is seeking evidence from the people of Northern Ireland and organisations involved to inform this Inquiry."

Call for evidence

The Committee is seeking evidence on the following questions:

  • What are the views of the general public, women and medical and legal professionals in Northern Ireland about the law on abortion and whether it should be reformed? How have those views changed over time?
  • What are the experiences of women in Northern Ireland who have been affected by the law on abortion?
  • What are the responsibilities of the UK Government under its international obligations for taking action to reform abortion law in Northern Ireland? How should these be reconciled to the UK’s devolution settlement?

Abortion Law in Northern Ireland evidence

Evidence given to a select committee is protected by parliamentary privilege. This means that it cannot be “impeached or questioned” in any court proceedings, nor can cases be brought on the basis of evidence published by the Committee as part of its inquiry. Discussion or repetition of evidence given to a committee outside Parliament is not protected.

Where witnesses have given evidence anonymously or confidentially, the Committee will not share the names of those concerned with any body outside Parliament, including law enforcement authorities.

Anonymity

For the Abortion Law in Northern Ireland inquiry, the Women and Equalities Committee will grant anonymity to evidence containing personal information on request. Such evidence will be published, but only after we have removed potentially identifying information to reduce the likelihood of individuals being identified.  We will always aim to ensure that redactions will prevent identification but anyone with particular concerns is encouraged to contact the Committee staff for advice.

Confidentiality

Where evidence cannot be anonymised (for example where the redactions which would be required to protect anonymity would remove much of the content), or where there are other safeguarding issues or concerns about level of anonymity provided by redactions, the Committee can treat evidence as confidential.  Confidential evidence will only be seen by members of the committee and the committee staff. This evidence will not be shared with third parties and will not be liable to be disclosed as part of any legal proceedings.

Evidence from identifiable individuals

If people choose to submit evidence under their own name or anonymously but with a level of redaction that leaves a residual risk that they will be identified the Committee cannot guarantee that they will be protected; their evidence to the committee will be protected by parliamentary privilege but if published Committee evidence suggests criminal behaviour has occurred, there is no bar on external bodies investigating that behaviour, which may lead them to find independent evidence which could be put before a court.

The Committee welcomes all views and will consult widely, both online, and face-to-face in Northern Ireland. Written submissions can be sent to the inquiry through our online portal. Information about making a submission is available here.

The deadline for written submissions is 10 December 2018.

Further information

Image: Parliamentary Copyright

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