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BHA welcomes judicial review of abortion law in Northern Ireland, supports opposition to proposed ‘conscience clause’ bill

The British Humanist Association (BHA) has welcomed news that Northern Ireland’s near-total ban on abortion is to be reviewed. It has also reacted positively to news that the Equality Commission will be opposing a proposed ‘conscience clause’ bill which aims to create broad religious opt-outs to equality legislation in Northern Ireland.

Abortion law

Abortion law in the region will be examined at a full hearing in June this year, following legal action taken by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) against the devolved Department for Justice in Belfast.

Northern Ireland is currently the only part of the UK where the Abortion Act, which allows expectant mothers free access to NHS abortions, does not apply. Abortion is therefore unlawful in most circumstances. The only exception to this are cases where there is deemed to be a real and serious risk to the woman’s long-term health. The consequence of this is that women from Northern Ireland, unable to access abortions near to their home, are forced to travel to other parts of the UK in order to obtain a private abortion.

The NIHRC’s case has focused on the law in instances where foetuses are seriously malformed, and where women become pregnant as a result of rape and incest. The Department of Justice recently consulted on the issue, recommending that the law be changed to allow abortions where the foetus has been diagnosed with a lethal abnormality. No recommendations, however, were made regarding pregnancies resulting from rape or incest, and it is this which led to this week’s hearing in the High Court.

The NIHRC argued in court that the denial of access to abortions is incompatible with human rights law because it amounts to torture and cruel and inhuman treatment. It could also point to widespread public support for liberalising the law.

Freedom of Conscience Bill

Meanwhile, the Equality Commission has come out strongly in opposition to a bill which would create legal exemptions to equality law in Northern Ireland on the grounds of alleged religious belief.

The Northern Ireland Freedom of Conscience Amendment Bill was introduced by an Assembly Member in the wake of legal action taken against a Christian-owned bakery which has refused to bake cakes celebrating same-sex marriage. If passed, the proposed Freedom of Conscience Bill would permit religious organisations to legally refuse to provide services that they felt conflicted with their religious beliefs. For example, Christian-run hotels would be able to refuse to serve gay couples.

Supporters of the bill claim that religious people are forced to violate their beliefs in order to stay in business. However, the Commission has argued that the introduction of the proposed amendments would significantly weaken legal protection against discrimination for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in Northern Ireland when trying to access goods, facilities and services. Furthermore, the restrictions would be inconsistent with equality law across the rest of the UK.

Pavan Dhaliwal, BHA Director of Public Affairs and Campaigns, commented ‘It cannot be right that women in Northern Ireland are treated as second class citizens, robbed of their fundamental rights and denied access to basic healthcare services. As humanists, we remain committed to the right of all women to have control over their own health and lives by having free access to safe, legal abortions, wherever they happen to live. It is high time that Northern Ireland’s abortion law was brought in line with laws covering the rest of the UK.’

On the subject of proposed ‘conscience clause’ provisions, Ms Dhaliwal continued, ‘The right to express your beliefs does not extend to the right to discriminate against someone in the provision of goods and services, purely because you have arbitrarily decided that they are not equal to everyone else. Equality laws across the UK have been hard won and are vital to protecting the rights of everyone, whatever their sexual orientation. We strongly support the Equality Commission in its robust opposition to this bill.’

Notes

For further comment or information, please contact BHA Director of Public Affairs and Campaigns Pavan Dhaliwal on pavan@humanism.org.uk or 0773 843 5059.

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The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.

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