Don’t trade away long overdue abortion law reform in deal with DUP, Amnesty warns
Amnesty International has warned that the negotiations to establish the next UK Government must not involve the trading away of long overdue abortion law reform in Northern Ireland.
The call comes ahead of a meeting today between Prime Minister Theresa May and DUP leader Arlene Foster to continue negotiations that would allow the Conservative Party to form a minority Government under a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement with the Northern Irish party, which has a hardline anti-abortion stance, following the general election last Thursday that resulted in a hung parliament. The warning also comes as talks to re-establish the devolved institutions at Stormont continue. The talks have a deadline of June 29 to restore devolution or reinstate direct rule.
Whilst the Abortion Act 1967 legalises abortions performed by registered practitioners in England, Scotland and Wales, this does not apply to Northern Ireland, where the issue of abortion falls under its devolved powers. There, abortion can only be performed in certain, limited circumstances – when the mother’s physical or mental health is in danger – and pregnancies that are terminated for any other reason, including fatal foetal abnormalities or pregnancies as a result of rape, constitute an offence against the person, as provided in the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. The law remains unchanged since then, apart from the additional provisions in the Criminal Justice Act 1945 that class abortion as ‘child destruction’ – an act that carries a life sentence.
Despite the high-risk stakes, women in Northern Ireland do procure abortions. The Guardian has reported that 1,000-2,000 women cross the Irish Sea to terminate their pregnancies in England or Wales every year.
The international community has condemned the state of play in Northern Ireland on numerous occasions, with international human rights committees repeatedly finding Northern Ireland’s abortion laws to be in breach of human rights standards and calling upon the UK government to remedy this. Additionally, the UN has previously expressed concern about criminal sanctions for abortion, and in a pair of related judgments in November and December 2015, the High Court in Belfast ruled that the existing abortion law in Northern Ireland was incompatible with the ECHR Article 8 (right to private and family life) insofar as it prevents access to termination of pregnancy in cases of fatal foetal abnormality and rape or incest (‘sexual crime’). This year, a judge in Belfast ruled that a mother who helped her 15-year-old daughter procure abortion pills online can challenge the decision to prosecute her, after her counsel argued that compelling the daughter to go ahead with the pregnancy constituted a violation of her human rights.
However, despite judicial progress, the DUP remains resistant; previously blocking attempts to reform the region’s abortion laws. In recent years, the DUP has also sought to reinforce the criminalisation of women who seek abortions in Northern Ireland through proposed amendments to a Justice Bill, which would have banned private health clinics from offering abortions. Gregory Campbell, DUP MP for East Londonderry, described the party last year to the Londonderry Sentinel as ‘unashamedly pro-life’, stating: ‘We will not be changing our support for the retention of innocent life […] There is nothing more innocent than an unborn child.’
Grainne Teggart, campaigns manager for Amnesty International said: ‘The UK Government has a responsibility to deliver abortion rights for women in Northern Ireland. A failure to do so would be a cruel betrayal of women. While health and justice are devolved matters, the UK Government is responsible for upholding human rights. We are today calling on the next UK Government to commit, particularly in the absence of functioning devolution, to prioritise bringing Northern Ireland’s abortion laws in line with international human rights standards. This must include the decriminalisation of abortion.’
Author: Eleanor Sheerin
Eleanor is an aspiring barrister and currently a legal intern with Global Rights Compliance, an organisation committed to enhancing compliance with international human rights standards