I am supporting amendments supported by MPs from across parliament designed to ensure that the UK upholds our international human rights obligations in relation to abortion. 1,053 women and girls travelled from Northern Ireland to England to obtain an abortion last year alone. I have listened to their stories and it is clear that the current law causes harm.
I understand that abortion is a sensitive issue and that people have deeply held personal beliefs on this subject. I also understand that that the United Kingdom as a country is bound by international human rights treaties which we have signed up to, and that we have a duty to uphold these obligations. The Northern Ireland assembly and Executive at Stormont has not sat for two and a half years. I believe that it is important that we as United kingdom Parliamentarians support the people of Northern Ireland by ensuring that their human rights are upheld even in the absence of an Executive.
Northern Ireland currently has one of the harshest abortion laws in the world. The criminal sentence for abortion is up to life in prison, and there is no exception for rape, incest, or cases where the fetus will not survive outside the womb. I support the position taken by the Royal College of Midwives, the Royal College of GPs, the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists who all support change of these laws and believe that abortion should be subject to regulatory and professional standards, in line with other medical procedures, rather than criminal sanctions. International human rights bodies are also clear that the abortion law in Northern Ireland is in breach of human rights.
In February 2018, the United Nations Committee for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women found that abortion law in Northern Ireland results in ‘a grave and systematic violations of rights’. It said that women and girls in Northern Ireland have three deplorable options (a) undergo a torturous experience of being compelled to carry a pregnancy to full term; (b) engage in illegal abortion and risk imprisonment and stigmatisation; or (c) undertake a highly stressful journey outside NI to access a legal abortion.’ This month, the United National Committee Against Torture recommended also condemned the situation. Indeed our own UK Supreme Court has found that the current law is incompatible with Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the right to respect for private and family life), in respect of women with pregnancies with a fatal fetal abnormality or due to rape or incest. The Court held that the legislative position in NI is “untenable”, “needs radical reconsideration” and “treats women like vehicles”. One judge said “This is a situation where the law should protect the abused woman, not perpetuate her suffering.” Another said that NI now stands “almost alone [in Europe] in the strictness of its current law” in light of the Irish referendum.
Although we must respect devolution, and I would like to see the Assembly up and running as soon as possible, I believe it is appropriate for Westminster to act to ensure human rights standards are upheld.
- The Women and Equalities Committee has found that “there are specific obligations for the Northern Ireland Assembly not to pass Acts that are contrary to the UK’s international obligations. Furthermore, devolution does not remove the UK Government’s own responsibilities to comply with its international obligations and internal laws cannot be used to justify a failure to comply with human rights standards”
- The United Nations Committee for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women also noted that “The UK argues that following the devolution of health and criminal law to NI, Westminster cannot amend NI’s criminal law, including revising abortion laws [ …but this] does not negate the direct responsibility of the State party’s national or federal Government to fulfil its obligations to all women within its jurisdiction”. Thus, the UK cannot invoke its internal arrangements (the Belfast Agreement) to justify its failure to revise NI laws that violate the CEDAW Convention.”
There is evidence that people in Northern Ireland do support change.
- In 2016, ARK, an Ulster University and Queen’s University research centre which runs the annual Economic and Social Research Council-funded Northern Ireland Life and Times (NILT) Survey, the equivalent to the British Social Attitudes survey, found that:
· 63% of respondents said that “It is a woman’s right to choose whether or not to have an abortion.
· 70% said that a woman should never go to prison for having an abortion.
· 63% of respondents disagreed that doctors should face criminal charges if they carry out an abortion
· 70% of respondents believed that abortion should be a matter for medical regulation and not criminal law.
- Amnesty International polling in 2018 found that
· 65% of adults in Northern Ireland agreeing that abortion should not be a crime
· 66% of the Northern Irish public think that Westminster should reform the law in the absence of a devolved government