A Bill seeking to amend the law to prevent abortions in cases of non-fatal disabilities does not comply with the UK’s international human rights obligations, MLAs have been told.
The Northern Ireland Human Right’s Commission (NIHRC) has said a “proposal to remove access to abortion in circumstances of serious foetal impairment is incompatible with the UK’s obligations under the UN CEDAW (Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women)”.
The development is a serious setback for MLAs hoping to reform current abortion legislation in Northern Ireland.
In March, the Severe Fetal Impairment Abortion Bill, brought by DUP MLA Paul Givan, passed its second stage by 48 votes to 12.
At the time, Mr Givan said said he wanted to amend the controversial legislation to show that people with disabilities are “equally valued”.
The Bill is currently under consideration by the Stormont health committee and Alliance Party MLA Paula Bradshaw, who is a member of the committee, proposed a motion seeking advice from the NIHRC on whether the Bill is compatible with human rights.
The Speaker of the Assembly, Sinn Fein’s Alex Maskey, published the NIHRC response on Tuesday afternoon, which includes a series of recommendations for health officials.
It said guidance should be produced by the Department of Health, in conjunction with regulatory and professional bodies, “in order to clarify what is meant by ‘severe fetal impairment’ and support the informed decisions made by women and their clinicians”.
It also said non-invasive prenatal testing (NIPT) should be offered alongside information, timely specialist referrals and counselling where necessary “to ensure that women in Northern Ireland are afforded as much information, support and time as possible to make an informed decision about the continuation of their pregnancy”.
The Commission warned the Bill may result in the violation of a number of Articles enshrined within Human Rights’ legislation.
These include the right to protect your private and family life, protection from torture and inhumane and degrading treatment, and protection from discrimination.
Ms Bradshaw said: “It is clear that to meet our human rights obligations we should not be forcing women to take pregnancies to term against their wishes, but rather providing information and support in form of non-invasive pre-natal testing, specialist referrals and counselling options so they can make the best choice.”
Ruairi Rowan, director of advocacy and policy at Informing Choices NI, said: "The Bill, if enacted, would breach the human rights of women and is a diversion from the ongoing failure to commission abortion services, alongside additional investment in contraception and reform of relationships and sexuality education in Northern Ireland.
"The failure to commission services has led to three trusts suspending early medical abortion services within the past six months.
"It is imperative that the Secretary of State urgently intervenes to ensure that all services provided for by the abortion regulations are enacted and the rights of women and pregnant people are realised."
In October 2019, abortion was decriminalised in Northern Ireland, with a new framework for services introduced, including unconditional terminations up to 12-weeks and no time limit where there would be substantial impairment to the foetus, or risk of death or serious permanent injury to the mother.
Abortions after 24 weeks in those circumstances are extremely rare.
Mr Givan has been contacted for comment.