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UN shifts stance, calls on countries to remove barriers to abortion

In a progressive move forward for women’s rights around the world, the United Nations has announced a shift on its abortion policy, calling on countries to remove barriers which prevent women from having a safe, legal abortion.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) has stated in a new general comment on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that countries have a duty to remove barriers to abortion in cases of rape, incest, fatal foetal abnormality and where such restrictions endanger a pregnant woman’s life or health by forcing her to seek an unsafe abortion.

Humanists UK, which campaigns to decriminalise abortion in the UK and Northern Ireland, has welcomed the updated policy which sends a strong signal to countries that maintaining criminal sanctions against women wanting an abortion is out of step with their international obligations.

While the policy is not binding on individual countries, countries party to the covenant will now be under international pressure to comply with the updated policy and their laws will be recognised as part of their human rights record.

The UN general comment states: ‘restrictions on the ability of women or girls to seek abortion must not, inter alia, jeopardize their lives, subject them to physical or mental pain or suffering which violates article 7, discriminate against them or arbitrarily interfere with their privacy. States parties must provide safe, legal and effective access to abortion where the life and health of the pregnant woman or girl is at risk, and where carrying a pregnancy to term would cause the pregnant woman or girl substantial pain or suffering, most notably where the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest or is not viable.’

‘In addition, States parties may not regulate pregnancy or abortion in all other cases in a manner that runs contrary to their duty to ensure that women and girls do not have to undertake unsafe abortions, and they should revise their abortion laws accordingly… States parties should not introduce new barriers and should remove existing barriers that deny effective access by women and girls to safe and legal abortion, including barriers caused as a result of the exercise of conscientious objection by individual medical providers.’

Humanists UK’s Campaigns Officer Rachel Taggart-Ryan commented, ‘In February this year, the United Nations stated that criminal restrictions on access to abortion in Northern Ireland were a severe and systemic breach of a woman’s human rights. The UK Supreme Court reached the same conclusion in June, stating that the current law is untenable and in need of radical reconsideration.

‘Now, the UNHRC has explicitly made clear that as far as international law is concerned, countries have a duty to decriminalise abortion as part of their wider duty to protect the life and health of the pregnant woman. The time for debate is over: the UK Government must acknowledge and act upon its obligations to the women of Northern Ireland to provide a safe, legal and local provision for reproductive health.’

Notes

For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Campaigns Officer Rachel Taggart-Ryan on rachel@humanism.org.uk or 0207 324 3065, or Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator on boyd.sleator@nihumanists.org 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.

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