Uncertainty over abortion referrals in North ‘unacceptable’ – Commons committee

British government ‘must respond’ to breaches of Northern Irish women’s rights

Members of the Together for Yes Campaign call for abortion reform in Northern Ireland. Photograph:  Niall Carson/ PA Wire

Members of the Together for Yes Campaign call for abortion reform in Northern Ireland. Photograph: Niall Carson/ PA Wire

 

The British government “must respond” to breaches of Northern Irish women’s rights caused by abortion law there, a House of Commons committee is warning.

In a report published on Thursday, the Women and Equalities Committee at Westminster describes ongoing uncertainty around whether Northern Irish doctors can refer patients to free abortion services in England as “unacceptable”.

Abortion law in Northern Ireland is still governed by Sections 58 and 59 of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, which outlaw abortion in all circumstances. These sections were repealed in England and Wales with the enactment of the 1967 Abortion Act. About 900 women a year travel from Northern Ireland to Britain for abortions.

Since the collapse of Stormont in January 2017 there have been significant developments around abortion law in the North but, without a devolved government, a local legislative response has been impossible.

The developments include a UN Committee finding “grave” and “systemic” breaches of women’s rights; the UK Supreme Court finding human rights breaches in relation to fatal foetal abnormalities and pregnancies resulting from rape; evidence that a significant amount of abortion pills purchased online are being sent to Northern Ireland; and the introduction of free abortion in England’s services for Northern Irish patients.

While the free services are welcome, the committee heard travel and overnight expenses are not covered, meaning some of the most marginalised women in the North could not avail of them. Also, anyone whose immigration status was insecure could not access this.

One campaigner who gave evidence said: “We have to remember the position of women unable to travel, and that includes women in particularly vulnerable situations such as domestic violence, women who do not have confirmed immigration status, or women who simply have other children and do not have childcare and therefore cannot travel.”

Legal standing

Although in June 2018 the UK Supreme Court ruled the situation breached human rights in relation to cases of fatal foetal abnormality, rape and incest, it could not make a declaration that the Northern Irish laws were incompatible with human rights law because the Northern Irish Human Rights Commission (NIHRC), which took the case, did not have legal standing.

“The UK government must set out a timetable for rectifying the error in the NIHRC’s standing within the next six months so that an individual victim, such as a victim of rape or incest, does not have to take a case to court,” says the committee.

Uncertainty for doctors about the legality of referring patients to the free abortion service must be addressed, it states.

“The Government Equalities Office should publish its legal advice on the scheme funding women and girls from Northern Ireland to access abortions in England following which the Department of Health for Northern Ireland should reissue guidance for healthcare professionals making it clear that referring patients . . . is not unlawful.”

The committee began its inquiry in September 2018 into the ongoing situation for Northern Irish women in need of abortion services and what the British government could do to address issues arising.