the UN says northern ireland’s abortion laws violate the human rights of women

A United Nations Committee found that the current restrictive abortion laws in Northern Ireland breach the UK’s international human rights obligations.

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11 March 2019, 4:53pm

Photography: Donal Talbot

While the Republic of Ireland’s historic vote to repeal the 8th Amendment transformed the lives of thousands of women last year, giving them access to healthcare, termination of pregnancies without having to travel and the right to choose, women in Northern Ireland are still suffering. While abortion is now legal in both the UK and the Republic of Ireland, in the North it is still considered a crime, punishable with up to life in prison. On average 28 women every day make the journey to Britain to obtain abortions after being denied medical treatment at home in Northern Ireland.

Since the 8th Amendment was repealed activists in the North have been leading a campaign, #NowForNI, to help those women currently oppressed and left behind by the region’s draconian abortion laws. Today, the campaign received a huge boost as a United Nations Committee said that not only are those laws oppressive, they are also a violation of international human rights obligations. The UN committee for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, went even further, calling on the British government to intervene, decriminalise and legislate to bring Northern Ireland’s abortion laws in line with the rest of the UK.

Currently Northern Ireland’s abortion laws fall under the jurisdiction of Stormont, Belfast’s parliament. However the Stormont government collapsed in January 2017, which has left Northern Irish citizens without a functioning parliament for the last two years. The UN committee, taking this into account, called on Westminster to intervene, citing a section from the 1998 Good Friday Agreement which requires the British government to legislate as necessary to ensure Northern Ireland are meeting current international human rights expectations. These expectations, in the case of abortion access, are not being met, according to the UN.

“The Committee welcomes the introduction of a scheme in June 2017 to enable women from Northern Ireland to access abortion services in England without having to pay,” the United Nations said today in a statement. “However, the Committee deeply regrets the continued failure of the State party to implement its previous recommendations, as well as the recommendations following its inquiry under article 8 of the Optional Protocol of the Convention finding grave and systematic violations of women’s rights in Northern Ireland to ensure women’s access to abortion services, including by decriminalising abortion, on the grounds that abortion is a matter for the authorities in Northern Ireland to consider.”

Today’s announcement has been welcomed by Amnesty International representatives in Northern Ireland as a huge step forward in the fight to provide abortion access for women and girls in the region.

“This report from the UN confirms what Amnesty has long said - Northern Ireland’s abortion laws are a daily violation of the rights of women and girls,” Grainne Teggart, Amnesty’s Campaigns Manager in Northern Ireland, said. “The UN Committee is very clear that it is the UK Government which has responsibility for ensuring that our laws are in line with the state’s international human rights obligations. Devolution – even when functioning – does not relieve the UK Government of their responsibility to uphold human rights in Northern Ireland. We call on the UK Government to introduce abortion reform legislation at Westminster without any further delay.”