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Northern Ireland fails to uphold women’s rights while new campaign seeks to strike abortion from criminal law

As the British Pregnancy Advisory Service launches ‘We Trust Women’, a campaign backed by the British Humanist Association (BHA) seeking to decriminalise abortion across the UK, attempts to amend abortion law in Northern Ireland, following last year’s legal victory, have failed.

In November, Belfast’s High Court ruled that the current law, which permits abortion only when there is a probable serious and long term risk is posed to the women’s mental or physical health, must be extended to instances of fatal foetal abnormality or where the pregnancy has occurred as a result of rape or incest, in order to comply with the European Convention on Human Rights.

The ruling was welcomed by the BHA at the time. However, it was criticised by members of the Legislative Assembly, including Northern Ireland’s justice minister David Ford, who claimed that it could lead to an ‘incremental widening’ of abortion law and on Wednesday, after both the DUP and the SDLP announced their opposition, the amendments to the Justice (No. 2) Bill were rejected.

Despite an emotive debate, in which Trevor Lunn of the Alliance Party implored members of the legislative assembly to ‘vote with their conscience’ and described the current law as a ‘stain on our national character’, the MLAs voted against the changes. Amongst the concerns was the suggestion that the due process for a rape conviction couldn’t be completed within the term of a pregnancy, leaving the amendment open to exploitation.

This setback for women’s rights comes as BPAS launches the ‘We Trust Women’ campaign which seeks to eradicate abortion from UK criminal law. Sections 58 and 59 of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act call for harsh recriminations for unlawful abortion, and although provisions made in the Abortion Act of 1967 ensure most women in the UK (excluding Northern Ireland) can secure an abortion, the campaign argues that inherent delays in the process limit the options available, causing further, unnecessary, trauma.

Currently, a woman in England, Scotland or Wales must seek the consent of two doctors to end a pregnancy. Not only is this stipulation not applicable to any other medical procedure where informed consent has been given, but adversely affects many for whom stand-alone abortion facilities aren’t suitable. The campaign points out that within NHS hospitals, doctors are more likely to be subject to threats of legal action from anti-abortion campaigners and those who need ongoing care for pre-existing medical conditions will find it harder to meet these requirements.

BHA Director of Public Affairs Pavan Dhliawal commented, ‘At present the legal and medical formalities around abortion make the process unnecessarily complicated and it is not right that abortions can lead to women being sent to jail. We support the “We Trust Women” campaign. We also believe that women from Northern Ireland should enjoy the same rights to free abortions on the NHS as women in England, Wales and Scotland are entitled to, and so are disappointed by the fact that the amendments in the Northern Ireland Assembly were defeated and will work with partners in Northern Ireland to continue to push for a change in the law.’

Notes

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

Read our previous news item on the High Court decision in November: https://humanism.org.uk/2015/11/30/high-court-rules-northern-irelands-abortion-laws-breach-womens-human-rights/

Read the summary of the Court’s November judgment:  https://www.courtsni.gov.uk/en-GB/Judicial%20Decisions/SummaryJudgments/Documents/Court%20declares%20abortion%20law%20in%20Northern%20Ireland%20breaches%20European%20Convention%20on%20Human%20Rights%20by%20faili/j_j_Summary%20of%20judgment%20-%20In%20re%20NIHRC%20(Termination%20of%20Pregnancy)%2030.11.15.htm

Read the follow up judgment where the declaration of incompatibility occurred: http://www.courtsni.gov.uk/en-GB/Judicial%20Decisions/SummaryJudgments/Documents/Court%20declares%20abortion%20law%20in%20Northern%20Ireland%20incompatible%20with%20the%20UK%E2%80%99s%20obligations%20under%20the%20Huma/j_j_Summary%20of%20judgment%20-%20In%20re%20NI%20Human%20Rights%20Commission%2016%20Dec%2015.htm

Read the proposed amendments to the Justice (No. 2) Bill (amendments 61-68): http://www.niassembly.gov.uk/globalassets/documents/legislation/bills/executive-bills/session-2014-2015/justice-no.-2-bill/ml—cs—03-02-16.pdf

Read the outcome of the vote: http://www.newsletter.co.uk/news/health/bid-to-change-abortion-law-fails-after-emotive-debate-1-7208996

Read about the We Trust Women campaign: http://www.wetrustwomen.org.uk/

Read more about the BHA’s position on sexual health and reproductive rights: https://humanism.org.uk/campaigns/public-ethical-issues/sexual-and-reproductive-rights/

The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethically 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 of belief.

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