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Weak response from UK Government on recognition of abortion in Northern Ireland

Humanists UK has expressed dismay that the eighth periodic report from the UK to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) glosses over violations relating to abortion access and LGBT rights in Northern Ireland. Humanists UK, which has campaigned for the decriminalisation of abortion and the recognition of same-sex marriages in the country, has branded the report weak as it fails to comment on or address the ‘grave and systemic’ violations of women’s rights highlighted in an inquiry held by CEDAW into abortion provision in Northern Ireland which was published only two months ago.

The UK is required to respond to CEDAW’s periodic review of its progress towards the eradication of violence against women. This response, which covers the period from 2011 to 2017, fails to mention the findings of CEDAW’s recent inquiry which found that current abortion restrictions are ‘grave violations of rights under the Convention [on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women] considering that the State party’s criminal law compels women in cases of severe foetal impairment, including FFA [fatal foetal abnormality], and victims of rape or incest to carry pregnancies to full term, thereby subjecting them to severe physical and mental anguish, constituting gender-based violence against women.’ Instead the UK Government merely notes that this problem was subject to ministerial attention in Northern Ireland before the collapse of the Legislative Assembly in 2017.

This also contradicts the findings from that same inquiry where CEDAW stated ‘the Committee recalls that under international law of State responsibility, all acts of State organs are attributable to the State [i.e. the UK itself, not Northern Ireland]. The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties provides in article 27 that a party to a treaty may not invoke the provisions of its internal law as a justification for its failure to perform it.’ This clearly indicates that as far as international law is concerned responsibility for addressing rights violations in Northern Ireland is the responsibility of the UK Government.

The response is also silent on discrimination in marriage law regarding same-sex couples in Northern Ireland. Whilst praising the milestone of 15,000 same-sex marriages being celebrated in England and Wales, and similar progress in Scotland, same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland is not mentioned at all.

Humanists UK’s Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson commented, ‘We are hugely disappointed that the UK response to CEDAW’s periodic review is not only weak on two of the most significant violations of rights in the UK, but remains entirely silent on CEDAW’s own inquiry and recommendations on these matters published less than two months previously. Fifty years after safe and legal abortion was made available to women in Britain, and five years after same-sex marriage was enacted in England and Wales, it is disappointing that the UK Government continues to bury its head in the sand and simply ignore these violations.’


For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Campaigns Officer Rachel Taggart-Ryan on or 07951 176 245, or Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator on or on 07470 395090.

Read the UK Government’s response to Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women:

Read the report from CEDAW into abortion access in Northern Ireland:

Humanists UK has long campaigned in defence of women’s reproductive rights and has intervened in other cases concerning Northern Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws. Humanists UK’s policies and approach to abortion are informed by its ethical position which supports a woman’s right to dignity and personal autonomy and accordingly to access a safe and lawful abortion with appropriate secular counselling and after-care should she choose to do so. Humanists UK has successfully campaigned to oppose changes to the law in England and Wales that seek to restrict access to abortion. It is a member of the Voice for Choice coalition, the We Trust Womencampaign, and the Back Off campaign. Its section Northern Ireland Humanists is a member of the Trust Women coalition, coordinated by Alliance for Choice. In September 2017 Humanists UK spoke out against the restrictive abortion laws enforced in many countries around the world as part of the 36th regular session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva.

Read more about Humanists UK’s campaigns work on abortion:

At Humanists UK, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. Our work brings non-religious people together to develop their own views, helping people be happier and more fulfilled in the one life we have. Through our ceremonies, education services, and community and campaigning work, we strive to create a fair and equal society for all.

Humanists UK recently changed its name from the British Humanist Association:

Northern Ireland Humanists is a part of Humanists UK, working with the Humanist Association of Ireland.

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