Join Donate

Women and Equalities Committee calls on UK Government to reform abortion law in Northern Ireland

The House of Commons Women and Equalities Select Committee has today called on the UK Government to set out a clear timeframe for reforming the law on abortion in Northern Ireland, even in the absence of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Humanists UK has welcomed the call.

The call comes as the Committee publishes the outcome of its inquiry into Northern Ireland’s abortion laws. Humanists UK submitted written evidence to the inquiry and its barrister in three of the four recent legal cases about abortion this matter, Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC, gave oral evidence at a hearing in February.

The report states that there has been significant developments in the legal status of Northern Ireland’s abortion law since the Northern Ireland Assembly collapsed over two years ago. Most significantly, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in February 2018 ‘found that there were “grave” violations in relation to cases of severe foetal impairment, including [fatal foetal abnormality], and rape or incest, and ‘systematic’ violations in the criminalisation of abortion.’

This was followed by the UK Supreme Court in June 2018 identifying ‘that there had been a breach of women’s… rights in relation to cases of fatal foetal abnormality, rape and incest’.

The report recommends ‘the UK Government needs to set out a clear framework and timeline to address the breaches of women’s rights in Northern Ireland under the CEDAW Convention that have been identified by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women if there is no government in Northern Ireland to take this action’ and ‘in the absence of the Northern Ireland Executive, the UK Government must legislate as a matter of urgency to allow for access to abortion where there has been a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality.’

On the question of whether the UK Government should act on a healthcare matter when this power is devolved in Northern Ireland, the Committee made clear that access to abortion is a human rights issue stating ‘there are specific obligations for the Northern Ireland Assembly not to pass Acts that are contrary to the UK’s international obligations. Furthermore, devolution does not remove the UK Government’s own responsibilities to comply with its international obligations and internal laws cannot be used to justify a failure to comply with human rights standards.’

Humanists UK’s Campaigns Officer Rachel Taggart-Ryan commented, ‘We welcome the recommendations of the Women and Equalities Select Committee that the UK Government legislate to reform the restrictive laws to protect women’s rights. It is simply shocking that women and girls do not have access to abortion in Northern Ireland, even in extreme cases such as where there is a fatal foetal abnormality or sexual crime. This has had a devastating impact on the lives of many women and girls.

‘The new recommendations echo those of a number of other bodies who have investigated the abortion laws in the country including the UK Supreme Court and the UN. There is a strong consensus that current restrictions are a breach of human rights and it is the responsibility of the UK Government to act, even without the presence of an assembly in Northern Ireland.’


For further comment or information, please contact Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at or phone 07815 589636.

Read the Women and Equalities Committee report:

Read Humanists UK’s written submission to the inquiry:

Read more about our campaign work on abortion and 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.

Search Humanists UK