COMMONS

Abortion law in Northern Ireland: Government must set out timetable for responding to breaches identified by UN Committee

25 April 2019

The Women and Equalities Committee publishes report on Abortion law in Northern Ireland.

Our report says 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
  • 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

Several significant developments relating to abortion in Northern Ireland

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
  • 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
  • a lack of follow-up to a report on fatal foetal abnormality commissioned by Northern Ireland ministers.

Lack of clarity about the current legal situation is creating confusion, fear and inequality

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.

Tese 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.”

International human rights obligations

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.

The report recommends that:

  • 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.

Committee Chair Maria Miller said:

“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.”

Guidance for healthcare professionals

There is 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 concludes 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.

Maria Miller said:

“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.

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.”

Funding for abortion provision in England: inequalities

The 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 if they have not reported the offence to the police under Northern Ireland law.

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 GEO should work with the Home Office to develop pathways for migrant women to travel to England to access the free provision.
  • 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.

Maria Miller said:

“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.”

Further information

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