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Northern Ireland's abortion laws must be amended by the government, insist MPs

A cross-party group of MPs has called on the UK Government to step in and legislate to amend Northern Ireland's strict abortion laws. Stock image
A cross-party group of MPs has called on the UK Government to step in and legislate to amend Northern Ireland's strict abortion laws. Stock image
Mark Bain

By Mark Bain

A cross-party group of MPs has called on the UK Government to step in and legislate to amend Northern Ireland's strict abortion laws.

The Women and Equalities Committee has advised that in the absence of an Executive at Stormont, responsibility for speeding up a response to breaches of human rights identified by the United Nations should now rest in Westminster.

The committee, chaired by Conservative MP Maria Miller, said there was a lack of clarity about the current legal situation and that was "creating confusion, fear and inequality".

It has now called for the government to provide a timetable for a response to the UN Supreme Court's finding of "grave and systematic" breaches of women's rights.

Ms Miller said: "We heard evidence from a wide range of witnesses in Belfast, Antrim and Derry/Londonderry - and in Westminster.

"These included doctors, nurses and midwives, lawyers, ministers and officials, organisations representing a range of views, and women who spoke to us about their own experiences.

"The lack of clarity about the current legal situation is creating confusion, fear and inequality. Our report sets out action which the Government must take to address this."

Since the Northern Ireland Assembly ceased functioning, the report highlighted several significant developments relating to our abortion laws.

Today's report noted how the UN body monitoring women's rights previously found that there were 'grave' violations in relation to cases of severe foetal impairment, including fatal foetal abnormality, rape or incest, 'systematic' violations in the criminalisation of abortion and highly restrictive access.

It recommended that the Government, in the absence of Stormont, must now set out a clear framework and timeline to address the breaches of women's rights that the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women had identified.

In identifying a breach of human rights in relation to cases of fatal foetal abnormality, rape and incest, the UK Supreme Court did not make a declaration of incompatibility because the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, which brought the case, did not have standing.

The UK Government, said the report, must now set out a timetable for rectifying the error 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.

Ms Miller added: "The situation of a woman or girl who became pregnant as a result of rape or incest having to pursue a court case highlights precisely why it should not depend on an individual victim to take a case to court. This must be rectified urgently."

The report calls for doctors in Northern Ireland to be given guidance on the legalities of referring patients to the UK Government-funded scheme providing free abortions in England.

Since 2017, women in Northern Ireland have been able to access abortion care elsewhere in the UK.

The inquiry found that the UK Government's funding for abortion provision in England is failing marginalised groups, including those in abusive relationships, too ill to travel or who cannot make the journey to England for abortion care.

It recommended that the Government Equality Office (GEO) publish an equality impact assessment on the scheme.

Today's report concludes the current situation is "unacceptable" and further calls on the GEO to publish its legal advice on the scheme.

It states the Department of Health for Northern Ireland should reissue guidance for healthcare professionals, making it clear that referring patients to the funded scheme is not unlawful.

"We heard of doctors facing a potential conflict between their duty of care to their patients and the law, and between their duty of confidentiality and the law," said Ms Miller.

"They still have not been given guidance on referring women to free abortions in England. This must be published immediately.

"We must ensure that women who are vulnerable or marginalised have the same access to services as everyone else.

"Women and girls who are pregnant as a result of rape or incest may face prosecution if they have not reported the offence to the police under Northern Ireland law.

"The Government must address these concerns by issuing human rights guidance."

KEY RECOMMENDATIONS OF THE REPORT

  • The Government needs to set out a framework and timeline to address the breaches of women’s rights in Northern Ireland that a UN committee identified if there is no government in Northern Ireland to take this action
  • The Government must set out a timetable so that a victim, such as a victim of rape or incest, does not have to take a case to court
  • The Government Equalities Office should publish its legal advice on the scheme funding women and girls from Northern Ireland to access abortions in England
  • Northern Ireland’s Department of Health should then reissue guidance for healthcare professionals making it clear that referring patients to the funded scheme is not unlawful
  • The Government Equalities Office (GEO) should publish an equality impact assessment on the UK Government-funded scheme and develop an information campaign to explain the provision
  • The GEO should work with the Home Office to develop pathways for migrant women to travel to England to access the free provision
  • The Attorney General for Northern Ireland should publish guidance stating that it will rarely be in the public interest to prosecute survivors of rape and incest, and professionals treating them, who have not reported the offence to the police

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