Government urged to respond to court ruling over Northern Ireland abortion laws
The UK Government must respond to a court ruling that Northern Ireland’s abortion laws are in breach of human rights laws, the Women and Equalities Committee has said.
The Commons committee called for the Government to set out its timetable to address the breaches identified by a UN committee monitoring women’s rights.
It comes after a report found that Northern Ireland’s powersharing crisis had led the devolved government to fail to respond to international human rights obligations.
According to the committee, the report also found that the absence of a Northern Ireland Assembly means there are no scrutiny bodies to make sure policies are working well nor any scrutiny of the use of UK Government funds for women and girls seeking an abortion in England.
Since the collapse of the powersharing executive in 2017, there have been several significant developments relating to abortion in Northern Ireland.
A UN committee found “grave” and “systematic” breaches of women’s rights, and the UK Supreme Court identified a breach of human rights in relation to cases of fatal foetal abnormality or where the pregnancy has resulted from rape or incest.
The UK Government also introduced funding for women and girls to access free abortion services in England.
Committee chairwoman Maria Miller said the committee heard evidence from a wide range of witnesses both in Northern Ireland 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,” she said.
“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.”
The report calls for the UK Government to set out a timetable 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 said: “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 also recommended that the Government Equalities Office should publish its legal advice on the scheme funding women and girls from Northern Ireland to access abortions in England.
It also stated that 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.
Ms Miller added: “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.
“They still have not been given guidance on referring women to the UK Government-funded scheme providing free abortions in England – which started in 2017. This must be published immediately.”
It further found that the UK Government’s funding for abortion provision in England is not accessed equally by different groups of women and girls.
The report recommends that the Government Equalities Office should publish an equality impact assessment on the scheme.
Ms Miller continued: “In practice, the scheme is more accessible to some women than others, with problems for women on low incomes, or who are too ill to travel, who are facing domestic violence and abuse, have insecure immigration status, or who are not registered with a GP.
“We must ensure that women who are vulnerable or marginalised have the same access to services as everyone else.”
Amnesty International UK and the Family Planning Association welcomed the report and called on the UK Government to take immediate action.
Grainne Teggart, Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland Campaign Manager, said: “This report is a welcome and urgent intervention that the UK Government cannot ignore.
“The Committee has made clear that the Government is responsible for delivering urgently needed change on abortion and calls for a timeline and framework to be set out.
“Devolution does not relieve the UK Government of their obligation to protect and promote the rights of women in Northern Ireland.
“Inaction is no longer an option. The UK Government cannot remain complicit in the harm caused by the existing abortion regime – the time for change is now.”
Sarah Ewart, a woman who was forced to travel to England for an abortion after being told her pregnancy had a fatal foetal diagnosis, brought her case to Belfast High Court with support from Amnesty.
The judgment is pending on this case.
Ms Ewart said: “Northern Ireland’s archaic abortion laws have left women like me suffering for far too long.
“The UK Government has turned a blind eye and ignored the hurt caused to me and others in my circumstances.”
Karen Murray, director for Northern Ireland at the Royal College of Midwives (RCM), said the report recognises that the current political situation in Northern Ireland is serving “neither women nor health professionals well”.
“Women’s human rights are being denied and health professionals face serious dilemmas in balancing the law of the land and their professional responsibilities,” she said.
“The current political situation means there is no one willing or able to take action to ensure that women’s rights are safeguarded, that misery is averted or that health professionals can do their jobs properly.”
A government spokesman said: “As abortion is a devolved matter, the best way forward is for locally accountable politicians in Northern Ireland to make decisions. We want to see devolved government restored at the earliest opportunity.
“The Government is carefully considering the committee’s report and recommendations, and will respond to the report in due course.”