Abortion laws in North violate women’s rights – UN committee

Situation in NI ‘may amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment’

The United Kingdom violates women’s human rights in Northern Ireland by unduly restricting their access to abortion, a report by a United Nations Committee has found.

Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, vice-chair of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) said “the situation in Northern Ireland constitutes violence against women that may amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment”.

In Northern Ireland an abortion is only allowed if a woman’s life is at risk or there is a serious or permanent risk to her mental health.

The committee visited Northern Ireland in September 2016 to conduct an inquiry following allegations from civil society organisations that women in the North faced grave and systematic violations of their rights.

Highly restrictive

“The systematic nature of the violations stems from the deliberate retention of criminal laws and State policy disproportionately restricting access to sexual and reproductive rights, in general, and highly restrictive abortion provision, in particular,” the report says.

“Westminster and Northern Ireland authorities clarify the magnitude of the phenomenon and choose to export it to England, where Northern Irish women travel to access abortions.”

In 2015-2016, only 46 abortions were performed in Northern Ireland’s public hospitals, while 724 Northern Irish women travelled and procured an abortion in England.

The report noted the “great harm and suffering” resulting from the physical and mental anguish of carrying an unwanted pregnancy to full term, especially in cases of rape, incest and severe foetal impairment.

“The situation gives Northern Ireland women three deplorable options: (a) undergo a torturous experience of being compelled to carry a pregnancy to full term; (b) engage in illegal abortion and risk imprisonment and stigmatisation; or, (c) undertake a highly stressful journey outside Northern Ireland to access a legal abortion.

“Women are thus torn between complying with discriminatory laws that unduly restrict abortion or risk prosecution and imprisonment.”

The report recommends changing the law to stop criminal charges being brought against women and girls undergoing an abortion or against health care professionals and others who provide and assist a termination.

It says legislation should be adopted to provide abortions at the very least where a woman’s physical or mental health is threatened, rape and incest, or in cases of severe foetal impairment.

Criminal prosecutions

It also recommends introducing a moratorium in the interim to cease all related arrests, investigations and criminal prosecutions, including of women seeking post-abortion care and healthcare professionals.

Les Allamby, Northern Ireland’s Human Rights chief commissioner, said the current situation is “wrong” and “violates” women’s human rights.

The commission has brought its own legal challenge on the issue to the UK Supreme Court, with a decision expected later this year.

Grainne Teggart, Amnesty International’s campaigns manager in Northern Ireland, said: “This damning report from the United Nations confirms what Amnesty has long said – Northern Ireland’s draconian abortion laws are a daily violation of the rights of women and girls.”

Nola Leach, chief executive of the Christian Action Research and Education (CARE), said the laws on abortion in Northern Ireland “must always be framed in a way that provides the best possible outcome for both the mother and the unborn child”.

“We cannot ignore one to the detriment of the other. Northern Ireland’s current legislation on abortion provides support for the unborn child; we should not seek to undermine or remove that protection.”

Sarah Burns

Sarah Burns

Sarah Burns is a reporter for The Irish Times