a letter To All Conservative Leadership candiDates
Dear Conservative Leadership Candidates,
For too long, the human rights of women* in Northern Ireland have been a bargaining chip for political power. We are asking you to make sure our voices are finally heard and our rights finally equal to all other women in the UK.
Abortion in Northern Ireland is effectively banned. The punishment is life in prison. There is no exception for rape.
The United Nations has said the law is 'tantamount to torture'. The Supreme Court has said the law is in need of 'radical reconsideration'. 28 women a week are forced to make the lonely journey away from Northern Ireland to access abortion, away from their support networks. Some cannot travel due to domestic abuse or insecure immigration status. Some take the risk of ordering illegal pills online.
It has been 50 years since the Abortion Act 1967 passed in England and Wales and Scotland. Stormont has not sat for over two years.
The next Prime Minister will have the opportunity to right this wrong and restore the UK’s standing as a beacon of human rights. It is Westminster legislation that holds back our future. That’s why we’re calling on you to pledge to ensure that every woman in the UK has equal access to safe, legal, free and local abortion services. You can do this by pledging that under your leadership parliament will hold a vote on whether to repeal section 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Persons Act 1861.
Be the Prime Minister who shows they trust women. Be the Prime Minister who believes in treating all women equally. Above all be the Prime Minster who will not ignore us. We cannot wait any longer. We will not wait any longer.
The London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign
Alliance for Choice
Northern Ireland Humanists
Abortion Support Network
Abortion Rights UK
Marie Stopes UK
Doctors For Choice UK
Siobhan Mc Sweeney
Morgan Lloyd Malcolm
*when we say women we include people who are non binary and trans
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Devolution is the process of transferring power from central government to a more local level. In terms of Northern Ireland, this mean from Westminster, and the Houses of Parliament, to Stormont, and the Northern Ireland Legislative Assembly. Some powers have been devolved to Stormont, and some remain at Westminster. The division of these powers is outlined in the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which is the act of Parliament which implemented the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement. It is argued that under the terms of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 that abortion is a devolved matter and cannot be acted on in Westminster. This is untrue for a number of reasons. Firstly, this is based upon the assumption that abortion is a Police and Justice matter. This is disputable on two grounds, one that it is a matter of healthcare, however this is also devolved. Two that it is a human rights issue. This has been backed up by the UN CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women) Committee. However because of the plurality of views on the issue, the best course of action is for Westminster to legislate on the issue to provide continuity in law across the UK. Secondly, also considering the CEDAW committee, there is a section in the Northern Ireland Act which allows the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to direct by order that action should be taken to ensure that international obligations are given effect to. This section could be interpreted to mean that far from the Westminster government being unable to act in the circumstances, they are in fact compelled to consider acting, as the UK is currently falling behind the international obligations which it signed up to in CEDAW. Thirdly it is not true that the government cannot act even if it is a devolved matter. There is a section of the Northern Ireland Act which specifically gives Westminster the absolute power to legislate for Northern Ireland. There is no legal bar to Westminster legislation to provide abortion care for Northern Ireland.
+ Offences Against the Persons Act 1861
The Offences Against the Person Act 1861 is the basis of the modern Criminal Law of the United Kingdom. It was written in part as a consolidation of the then scattered criminal law, and in part as a response to escalating violence from the Republican Movement in then British controlled Ireland. Of the 79 sections which were incorporated into the Act in 1861, 37 remain in force. Of these 37, two, sections 58 and 59 consider the procurement of abortion. Repealing sections 58 and 59 would decriminalise abortions up to 24 weeks, acknowledging the terms of the Abortion Act 1967 in Great Britain. In Northern Ireland it would fully decriminalise abortion. This means that those women who order pills online would no longer have to risk prosecution. For wider provision of abortion services in Northern Ireland, we would have to wait for the Executive at Stormont to reconvene.
+ Petition of Concern
Section 42(1) Northern Ireland Act 1998 provides: “If 30 members petition the Assembly expressing their concern about a matter which is to be voted on by the Assembly, the vote on that matter shall require cross-community support.” Where this applies, a vote on proposed legislation will only pass if a weighted majority of members voting (60%) agree, including at least 40% of each of the nationalist and unionist designated MLAs voting.
Prior to reforms to the number of MLAs and the last elections, the DUP had more than 30 MLAs and a large proportion of the unionist designated MLAs. Hence, where they did not like a proposed measure, they could trigger a petition of concern and thereby veto the measure. It has been used by MLAs from almost every party and on a range of issues, from same-sex marriage to welfare reform legislation, and even to stop reprimands against politicians.
The petition of concern mechanism, which was introduced after the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, must have at least 30 signatures to succeed and is meant to ensure that contentious legislation can only be introduced with cross-community support.
An analysis by The Detail has found that MLAs used the veto powers on 31 separate proposed bills and motions during the 2011 to 2016 electoral term, including on marriage equality, welfare reform legislation, as well as on three occasions when politicians faced reprimands.
The majority [84%] of the vetoes related to just 14 pieces of proposed legislation which involved the blocking of multiple amendments.
The DUP used the powers the most, with its members signing 86 petitions of concern, while the second highest use was by the SDLP and Sinn Féin whose members each signed 29 petitions of concern.
+ What doctors say
Professor Lesley Regan, President of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG), said:
“The current legal situation means healthcare professionals in Northern Ireland struggle to provide support for women requesting an abortion or safely manage any post-abortion complications. We recognise that this is a highly politicised issue but the current situation is unacceptable and leaves doctors, nurses and midwives working in a precarious legal vacuum in this core part of women’s sexual and reproductive healthcare….
“Decriminalisation of abortion presents a unique opportunity to address once and for all the inconsistent and unequal access to abortion care in Northern Ireland and we call on the UK government to decriminalise abortion across all UK nations.”
Dr Carolyn Bailie, a consultant obstetrician in Belfast and Chair of the Northern Ireland Committee of the RCOG, said:
“The current situation means that any woman seeking an abortion has to travel to the UK without formal medical referral, and at huge personal cost both emotionally and financially. Whilst funding for abortion in England and Scotland is a welcome temporary step, this is not an acceptable long term solution.
“Members of the Northern Ireland Committee have increasing concerns regarding the purchase of abortion-inducing medications online and the potential complications that can arise when they are not taken under medical supervision. This poses difficulties for healthcare professionals caring for women under such circumstances and places women and professionals at risk of imprisonment.
“We are aware that women, particularly those in vulnerable circumstances, are more likely to attempt to access abortion pills online, despite the recent changes in arrangements for abortion provision in England. It is also more likely that women may delay seeking help should they develop any complications from taking these pills, due to the fear of being discovered and the potential legal consequences.
“The Northern Ireland Committee of the RCOG supports the College’s position on removing criminal sanctions associated with the purchase of abortion pills online. The difficulties women in Northern Ireland face in obtaining an abortion mean they are most at risk of being criminalised if they take the desperate step of buying abortion pills online.
“We welcome the recent publication of the working group report on termination of pregnancies in fatal fetal abnormality cases. Obstetricians in Northern Ireland continue to be in a position where they cannot provide local care and support to parents who have been given the distressing diagnosis of a fetal condition likely to lead to death before or shortly after birth, and who no longer feel able to continue with the pregnancy.
“As doctors, we wish to provide compassionate and appropriate care to these women, according to their individual personal circumstances, and to be able to practise confidently, knowing that this is within the rule of law.
“Members of the Northern Ireland Committee of the RCOG will continue to meet with politicians, members of the legal profession and organisations representing women to help make progress.”
+ What do people in Northern Ireland think?
The Northern Ireland Life and Times survey findings reveal strong support for abortion reform in Northern Ireland across voters for all the main political parties here.
In cases of fatal or serious foetal abnormality, where the life or health of the mother is at serious risk and in cases of rape and incest the overwhelming majority of supporters of each of the main parties said that in their view abortion should definitely or probably be legal. Where there is a fatal foetal abnormality 88 percent of Alliance Party supporters said that abortion should be legal with 86 per cent of UUP voters, 80 percent of Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) supporters and 75 and 74 per cent of Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and Sinn Fein (SF) supporters respectively agreeing that it should be legal. Where the pregnant women was likely to die as a result of the pregnancy, 96 per cent of Alliance supporters thought that abortion should be legal, as did 90 per cent of UUP supporters, 81 per cent of DUP supporters, 79 per cent of SF supporters and 74 per cent of SDLP supporters. Across the range of scenarios Alliance supporters were the most likely to support legalisation of abortion followed by UUP supporters, and the views of SF and SDLP supporters were often closely aligned. SF and SDLP supporters were the least likely to say that abortion should definitely be legal in the seven scenarios posed in the Life and Times survey.
While the DUP has said it will not support any change in the law in NI, its supporters believe abortion should be definitely or probably be legal in six out of the seven scenarios showing a higher level of support for reform of abortion law than SF or SDLP voters.
Northern Ireland currently has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world. Women who are viewed as infringing these laws and those who assist them are subject to harsh criminal penalties. These findings, based on the views of a representative sample of the Northern Ireland public, show that abortion legislation in Northern Ireland is out of step with public opinion. They also suggest that in some cases the views of political parties are out of step with those of their supporters.
The Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is a treaty which was adopted by the United Nations in 1981.
It is the most important human rights treaty for women.
The United Kingdom as a country is a party to CEDAW. It ratified the treaty in 1986. This means that it agreed, first, to be legally obliged to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women in all areas of life, and second, to ensure women’s full development and advancement in order that they can exercise and enjoy their human rights and fundamental freedoms in the same way as men. The UK also agreed to allow the CEDAW Committee to scrutinize its efforts to implement the treaty by reporting to the body at regular intervals.
The CEDAW Committee can also consider complaints from individual women or groups of women about the way they are treated in the United Kingdom. In 2016, the CEDAW Committee was invited to Northern Ireland to investigate the effect that the abortion laws were having on women.
In 2018, the Committee reported that it had found that the United Kingdom was responsible for subjecting thousands of women and girls to grave and systematic violations of their rights, through being compelled to either travel outside Northern Ireland to procure a legal abortion or to carry their pregnancy to term.
The United Nations CEDAW Committee found that:
The situation in Northern Ireland constitutes violence against women that may amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
A restriction affecting only women from exercising reproductive choice, and resulting in women being forced to carry almost every pregnancy to full term, involves mental and physical suffering constituting violence against women.
Denial of abortion and criminalization of abortion amounts to discrimination against women because it is a denial of a service that only women need.
Women’s mental anguish is exacerbated when they are forced to carry to term a non-viable foetus (in cases of fatal foetal abnormality) or where the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest. The CEDAW Vice-Chair commented that forcing a woman to continue with her pregnancy in such a situation amounted to unjustifiable State-sanctioned violence.
The Guardian: 'MPs urged to back forced liberalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland. Cross-party group of MPs has plan that would force May to act'.. Read more
The Guardian: 'The only Northern Irish woman with a choice about abortion? Arlene Foster'. Read more.
The Belfast Telegraph: 'The law is not fit for purpose... it is time to trust all women with their own healthcare'. Read more.
The Times: 'Women suffer while Northern Ireland hides from 21st century'. Read more