Imagine two women; one lives in Belfast; the other in Edinburgh. Both women have decided to terminate their pregnancy. The one in Edinburgh is covered by the 1967 Abortion Act. She’ll need to seek approval from two doctors before proceeding, and has other barriers to overcome, but she has access to a safe and legal abortion. For the woman in Northern Ireland, the situation is one of the worst in the western world. The abortion law dates to 1861, so it’s hardly surprising that terminations are heavily restricted: an abortion is only available if there is a serious, permanent or long-term risk to the life or health of the woman. For the woman in Belfast, a termination will involve extensive planning and travelling, as well as emotional and financial costs. As she cannot exercise her reproductive rights at home, she will have to leave and travel across the sea to terminate her pregnancy, purchase illegal medicine online, or continue with an unwanted or unviable pregnancy.
In reality, it isn’t just one woman living in Belfast. The restrictive nature of the 1861 law meant that over 700 women travelled to England last year to access a safe and legal abortion. But the law doesn’t just push women to travel long-distances. Women who seek to access abortion within Northern Ireland by, for instance, buying medically-safe abortion pills online, are committing an offence that carries a sentence of up to life in jail. This is not an abstract threat. In recent years, at least three women have been prosecuted by the Northern Ireland Public Prosecution Service. Northern Ireland is not only preventing women from exercising their reproductive rights, it’s punishing women who do.
The abortion law in Northern Ireland been found to be incompatible with both our domestic human rights legislation as well as international law. Four months ago, the UN Committee on the Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) made a statement that the UK was violating the rights of women in Northern Ireland, saying:
“The situation in Northern Ireland constitutes violence against women that may amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment”
In response to the violation of women’s rights, the UN called on the UK government to decriminalise abortion in Northern Ireland. Not only that, this was the first time the CEDAW committee has ever used the Optional Protocol (which allows CEDAW to issue a judgement on a specific issue) in the UK. It’s important to note that CEDAW called on the UK to end this violation of human rights because it was the UK, not devolved administrations, which signed up to CEDAW.
Yet, what has sparked calls for reform to the abortion law wasn’t the UN call for decriminalisation. It was the success of the Repeal the 8th referendum in the Republic of Ireland. After last week’s result, some people have been calling for a similar referendum in Northern Ireland, but as we make clear in this piece, what’s actually needed is for Westminster to take action to repeal the abortion law in Northern Ireland.
Somewhere in the last week, the violation of women’s rights in Northern Ireland has become second to the debate on devolution. Like Scotland, Northern Ireland has a devolved administration, which was the result of the Belfast (or Good Friday) Agreement in 1998. This gives the Northern Irish Assembly powers over certain areas of legislation. Since January 2017, the Assembly has been in a state of ‘non-existence’ after party negotiations repeatedly failed. In practice, this means that civil servants are keeping state functions running, while large decisions like the budget are going through the UK Parliament.
Even if Northern Ireland had a functioning administration, it would still be incumbent on Westminster to take action in order to fulfil its obligations to all women and girls in the UK. Devolution leaves murky waters between devolved and reserved powers, and with abortion legislation touching on health, gender equality, human rights and (currently) criminal justice there are those on both sides of the Irish Sea who argue it is not in Westminster’s jurisdiction to step in and, as one Conservative MP put it, “impose the abortion rules in England and Wales on Northern Ireland”. Two things:
One: No one, least of all abortion rights campaigners, is asking for the 1967 Act (or “the abortion rules in England and Wales”) to be imposed in Northern Ireland. Abortion rights campaigners are rightly calling for decriminalisation, not for an out-of-date abortion law to be extended to Northern Ireland.
Two: It isn’t “imposing” when human rights are being violated. It’s intervening to right a wrong which has been internationally recognised as the UK’s responsibility. For too long, Northern Irish women have been ignored and abandoned by the UK Government, who continue to deny them one of their inherent rights under CEDAW, the right to health, including sexual and reproductive health. The argument of devolution is just the latest excuse to not intervene.
Do you know who else agrees with this assessment? The UN. UN members had some serious foresight – they saw the devolution argument coming. In their report earlier this year, they spoke about the Belfast Agreement, saying:
“The UK cannot invoke its internal arrangements (the Belfast Agreement) to justify its failure to revise NI laws that violate the CEDAW convention”.
When women's rights are violated in contravention of international law, devolution cannot be used as a reason not to act. Signing and ratifying international treaties such as CEDAW means more than just holding up a piece of paper - it is a promise to all those you represent to uphold those rights.
For example the UK is signed up to the UN Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment. If Scotland decided to introduce torture as a new criminal justice measure, would we expect Westminster to intervene? Of course yes; both to protect the rights of people across the whole of the UK, and to ensure that the UK is compliant with its international obligations.
There is no excuse to justify the continued egregious violation of human rights happening in Norther Ireland. Absolutely none.
Yet here we are. Reminding our MPs of their duty to respect, protect and promote human rights at home. As a matter of urgency, MPs should repeal the abortion law in Northern Ireland, and we’ve written to Scottish MPs to say as much. No woman across the four nations should be without access to a free, safe and legal abortion. If you agree, you can find out who your MP is and write to them here.
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