Northern Ireland: vote to oppose abortion law change is a ‘betrayal of women and girls’

Amnesty International has criticised moves to oppose reform of Northern Ireland’s restrictive abortion law in the region’s Assembly today as a “betrayal of women and girls” and another “stalling tactic”

Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly have submitted proposals to allow for abortion in cases of fatal foetal diagnosis and where the pregnancy was as a result of rape or incest. Political parties, the DUP and SDLP have announced that they will be voting against any changes.

In December last year, Belfast’s High Court ruled that Northern Ireland’s abortion law is in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights by not allowing for terminations in such circumstances.

Amnesty International is calling for Northern Ireland law to be brought into line with international human rights standards, including full decriminalisation of voluntary abortion, and access to safe and legal abortions, at a minimum, on grounds of severe or fatal foetal abnormality, or in circumstances where pregnancy is a result of rape or incest.

Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland Programme Director Patrick Corrigan said:

“Northern Ireland's abortion law dates from Victorian times, is among the most restrictive in the world and is in urgent need of reform. A vote to stymie change today is a further betrayal of women and girls who will continue to be forced to travel outside Northern Ireland to seek the healthcare they are denied at home.

“Legislators would do well to remember that between 1,000 and 2,000 Northern Ireland women and girls are forced to make that journey every year, and are made to feel like criminals for having done so.

“The DUP announcement that they are to ask Health Minister Simon Hamilton to establish a ‘working group’ on fatal foetal abnormality appears to be yet another stalling tactic to avoid doing the one thing that would actually make a positive difference for women and girls in Northern Ireland - voting to change the abortion law.

“An extensive consultation on this issue was already conducted by the Department of Justice in 2014/2015 - it recommended a change to the law with regard to access to abortion on fatal foetal abnormality. The DUP and other Executive Ministers have had eight months to get behind the proposal from the Justice Minister and have failed to do so. More talk will tell us nothing we do not already know – that the law on abortion in Northern Ireland is unfit for purpose.”

Attorney General’s comments

Responding to commentary reported to be in a letter sent by Northern Ireland Attorney General John Larkin, regarding disability and fatal foetal impairment, Patrick Corrigan, said:

“It is disconcerting to learn that the Attorney General questions whether or not providing for access to abortion in cases of fatal foetal impairment is compatible with international human rights law, when it is very clear that it is exactly what is required by international human rights law.”

“The Attorney General’s comments, apparently conflating disability with fatal foetal impairment, are misleading and do a great disservice to those in Northern Ireland who want an informed discussion on this important human rights issue. Moreover, it is most unfair on women and families who have been through or are currently facing these experiences.

“To be clear, fatal and severe foetal impairment means the foetus will not survive birth or for very long after birth.

“Neither the World Health Organisation nor any human rights body has characterised severe foetal impairment as a disability of the foetus.

“Legislating for access to abortion in cases of fatal and severe foetal impairments is in no way incompatible with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. To suggest otherwise simply serves to confuse public understanding of the issue and provides cover for those politicians who do not wish to bring Northern Ireland’s law into compliance with international human rights standards.

“Amnesty International has followed the lead of the UN’s human rights bodies in calling for access to safe and legal abortion services in cases of severe and fatal foetal impairment where women or girls wish to terminate the pregnancy on these grounds.

“There is huge public support in Northern Ireland for access to abortion on these grounds. This is substantially due to the harrowing testimonies of the women and their families who have bravely spoken out about the trauma of having to travel and being treated as criminals.”

Statistics

Around 1,000 women and girls from Northern Ireland are known to travel to England or elsewhere every year to access abortions. The figure may be much higher, as not all women give their home addresses to clinics. In addition, an unknown number of women end their pregnancies by sourcing abortion pills online.

Support has been growing for altering Northern Ireland’s strict abortion law, with seven out of ten people backing changes to permit terminations in the circumstances proposed under the draft amendments, according to an Amnesty International survey.

Key findings of the independent research, carried out by polling company Millward Brown Ulster, which polled 1,013 people in October 2014, showed that:

- 60% of people think the law in Northern Ireland should make access to abortion available where the foetus has a fatal abnormality;

- 69% of people think the law in Northern Ireland should make access to abortion available where the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.

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