Over 170 politicians from the UK and the Republic of Ireland have signed an open letter to the UK Government calling for reform of the near-total ban on abortion in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland Humanists and Humanists UK, which have campaigned for free, safe and legal access to abortion in Northern Ireland, have welcomed this letter which has brought more pressure to bear upon the UK Government to legislate for the realisation of women’s reproductive rights.
The letter states that ‘In 1998, when parties signed up to the agreement, they did so on the basis that one of the foundation stones of the new political dispensation in Northern Ireland was that laws would be compliant with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). This responsibility cannot be abandoned for political expediency; and it falls to each of us to help ensure that these commitments are proactively upheld.’
Last month, the Supreme Court ruled that the current restrictions on abortion in Northern Ireland are incompatible with the ECHR in cases where the pregnancy has arisen from rape, incest, or there is a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality – which means that the foetus is unlikely to reach full term or will die during or shortly after birth. Humanists UK was the first intervener in this case.
In February, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) also found that current restrictions constitute ‘grave’ and ‘systemic’ violations of women’s rights. CEDAW also made clear to the UK Government that as far as international law is concerned, responsibility for any breach of human rights across the UK is its responsibility, and not that of a devolved administration.
Since the referendum in the Republic of Ireland in May which overturned the country’s constitutional ban on abortion, there have been increasing calls for the same recognition of women’s rights in Northern Ireland. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar recently commented, ‘Any right or freedom that an Irish citizen has in Ireland, any right or freedom that a British citizen has in Britain, should be enjoyed by Irish and British citizens in Northern Ireland and that applies to things like marriage equality and abortion rights.’
The law governing abortion in Northern Ireland is one of the most restrictive in Europe and the criminal sanctions imposed are amongst the harshest in the world, with the maximum sentence being life imprisonment. Current restrictions force women to either travel to the UK to receive treatment, risk prosecution for procuring illegal online abortion pills, or continue their pregnancies against their wishes and in violation of their rights. There is no exception made for pregnancies that arise as a result of sexual crime or where there is a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality.
Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator commented, ‘After the Supreme Court ruling, the referendum result in the Republic of Ireland, the damning report by CEDAW, several passionate debates in both the House of Commons and the Lords, and now the publication of a cross-party, cross-country call for change, the UK Government cannot continue to ignore the violation of women’s rights in Northern Ireland. We call upon the Government to bring forward legislation to amend the 1861 Offenses Against the Person Act which would take abortion out of the criminal justice system and allow access to free, safe and legal abortion services in Northern Ireland.’
For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Campaigns Officer Rachel Taggart-Ryan on firstname.lastname@example.org or 0207 324 3065, or Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator on email@example.com or on 07918 975 795.
Read more about Humanists UK’s campaigns work on abortion: https://humanism.org.uk/campaigns/public-ethical-issues/sexual-and-reproductive-rights/
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.
Northern Ireland Humanists is a part of Humanists UK, working with the Humanist Association of Ireland.