Belfast Telegraph

Abortion: Our aim is to stop denial of human rights to a part of UK


Les Allamby
Les Allamby

By Les Allamby

This week marks 50 years since the passing of the Abortion Act in the rest of the UK.

Meanwhile, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission will be arguing in the Supreme Court in London that the law here violates human rights.

The commission's view is that the failure to allow for access to terminations in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, serious malformation of the foetus and for victims of sexual crimes such as rape and incest is contrary to the Human Rights Act. Guidance on how medical staff should interpret the current law in practice has been contested and was subject to court challenges lasting almost a decade.

Very few terminations occur in Northern Ireland. Instead, around 800 women and girls each year are reported as travelling across to Britain for the procedure.

At the same time, Women on the Web (which runs a website to refer women and girls to licensed doctors to obtain abortion pills after an online consultation) has seen a threefold increase in the use of its services in Northern Ireland since 2010.

Treating women who access medication online as criminals remains a live issue. A mother who bought pills for her pregnant 15-year-old daughter to induce an abortion is currently being prosecuted through this decision.

The commission's action to defend human rights in relation to termination of pregnancy raises a wider point. Many issues resolved elsewhere in the UK remain politically contested in Northern Ireland and subject to court action.

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In an earlier legal challenge, the commission successfully overturned a law that prevented unmarried couples, including same-sex couples in Northern Ireland, from being considered as adoptive parents.

The lifetime ban on blood donations from men who have had sex with men - lifted elsewhere in the United Kingdom in 2011 - was only resolved here last year.

Again, a legal challenge was the catalyst for the political solution.

The lack of equal marriage was also the subject of an unsuccessful legal challenge recently, and this remains an outstanding issue for politicians locally.

The UK Government has signed up to global human rights treaties recognising the value and importance of protecting everyone's human rights.

The United Nations has repeatedly called for an end to the criminalisation of women who seek a termination and those who support them.

While many treaties have not been incorporated into domestic law, the European Convention on Human Rights has.

While the pace of change locally may often seem glacial, it is clear that public attitudes have changed in favour of a more permissive approach to abortion in line with the commission's legal challenge.

The recent Northern Ireland Life and Times survey revealed that the vast majority of those surveyed felt that access to termination should definitely or probably be legal in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, for victims of sexual crimes and where there was a serious foetal abnormality.

Moreover, the only other countries in Europe with laws as restrictive are the Republic, Andorra, Liechtenstein, Malta and San Marino. Human rights issues are best resolved through political and parliamentary mechanisms which take international human rights standards seriously.

In the absence of such processes it is inevitable that the courts will be asked to intervene.

That is why the Human Rights Commission will be in the Supreme Court for three days next week in order to protect and uphold human rights of women and girls.

  • Les Allamby is chief commissioner at the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission

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