5 Ways the UK is Violating the Human Rights of Women in Northern Ireland

On Friday, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) published a report which found that the UK violates the rights of women in Northern Ireland by unduly restricting their access to abortion.

By Cara Sanquest

Time's Up Rally London 2018

The report found that while women and girls in England, Wales and Scotland have access to abortion, women and girls in Northern Ireland face ‘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.’

The report states that women and girls in Northern Ireland are subjected to grave and systematic violations of rights through being compelled to either travel outside Northern Ireland to have a legal abortion, or to carry their pregnancy to term. CEDAW Vice-Chair Ruth Halperin-Kaddari said “The situation in Northern Ireland constitutes violence against women that may amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment

The report recommends the decriminalisation of abortion for women who have abortions and medical staff and anyone else who assists them. It calls for the legalisation  of abortion in cases of rape, fatal foetal abnormality, and where these is a risk to a woman’s physical or mental health.

CEDAW notes that ‘at all stages of the proceedings, the Committee received the full cooperation of the UK Government’. The UK government’s cooperation in the implementation of the recommendations will be another matter.

We've listed some of the ways the UK is violating the human rights of women in Northern Ireland... 


1. The UK is responsible for upholding human rights standards across the UK, including in Northern Ireland

The UK has argued that, because of devolution, Westminster does not have responsibility for upholding human rights in Northern Ireland when it comes to access to abortion. The report finds that this is incorrect and clearly states that the responsibility lies with Westminster.

‘53. 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.’

2. Doctors are under threat and abortion is ‘virtually impossible’ to access in Northern Ireland

The 1967 Abortion Act - which makes abortion legal in the rest of the UK - was never extended to Northern Ireland, where abortion is legal on very limited grounds, but in practice is ‘virtually impossible’ to access.

The report highlights that the threat of prosecution is a real one. Between 2006 and 2015, the PSNI made 11 arrests related to illegal abortion. Between 2011 and 2016, five people were questioned and arrested for possession of abortifacients (drugs that induce abortion); two were convicted.

This has a direct effect on the work of medical professionals. The report found that even in circumstances where an abortion might be legal, among clinicians there is ‘increasing unwillingness [...] to make referrals for or to perform an abortion for increased fear of criminal liability’. It also notes the ‘intimidating and hostile working environments resulting from threats of prosecution’.

3. Doctors are unable and unwilling to provide adequate aftercare to women who have taken abortion pills

Women who require care after taking abortion pills are being let down and doctors fear being prosecuted for providing medical care.

The report notes that healthcare professionals operate a “don’t ask, don’t tell” practice when women who have taken illegal abortion pills require aftercare. This is in part due to Department of Health guidance which states: “Health and social care professionals working in clinical situations need to be assured that procedures they are involved in are lawful. [They] must balance the need for confidentiality of patients with the obligation to report unlawful terminations of pregnancy to the police and the need to protect others from serious harm”.

The report notes that this ‘presents a barrier to providing appropriate medical care’ and recommends providing ‘women with access to high quality abortion and post-abortion care in all public health facilities, and adopt guidance on doctor-patient confidentiality in this area’.  

4. Women in Northern Ireland are being harassed and no one is being prosecuted

The committee found ‘the presence and actions of anti-abortion protestors stationed at entrances of public and private health facilities’ impedes women’s ability to access legal abortions in Northern Ireland.

The report notes that anti-abortion protesters are further ‘emboldened by lack of prosecution’. Sister Supporter are leading the way on buffer zones in London, and as a result of their work, Amber Rudd has recently announced an a public consultation on the issue.

’19. Anti-abortion protestors monitor women entering and exiting a facility and displayed large graphic posters of disfigured foetuses….[The committee heard testimony of] anti-abortion protestors having chased women exiting the facilities, forcing plastic baby dolls into their arms and pro-life literature into their bags, pleading with them “not to murder their babies”. A facility has recruited escorts to shield clients from this aggressive behaviour. Although police are frequently alerted to this situation, they rarely intervene.‘

The report found a failure ‘to protect women from harassment by anti-abortion protestors when seeking sexual and reproductive health services and information’ and recommends that measures are taken to ‘Protect women from harassment by anti-abortion protestors by investigating complaints, prosecuting and punishing perpetrators.’

5. Making abortion illegal does not stop abortion happening

The report notes that the illegality of abortion does not stop women needing abortion, and does not result in a real decrease in the abortion rate. Instead, the illegality of abortion results in unsafe abortions and creates a burden for women who travel or act outside the law in order to access an abortion.

‘C (I) (ii) While the Committee acknowledges that the State may have a legitimate interest in “prenatal life”, criminalising abortion does not further this purpose. World Health Organisation data indicates: (a) a direct correlation between restrictive abortion laws and high rates of unsafe abortions, leading to high mortality and morbidity; and, (b) that bans or very restrictive abortion laws have no deterrent effect’

The report highlights the number of women who travel from Northern Ireland to England and Wales to access abortion:

- Between 1970 and 2015, a total of 61,314 abortions in England were performed on NI residents. Every year, approximately 16 percent of all abortions performed on non-residents of England and Wales are provided to NI women.

- In 2016, five were performed on girls under 16 years, and 19 were performed on girls aged 16 and 17 years.

- The majority of procedures occurred between three to nine weeks of gestation, with only three percent of abortions performed at 20 weeks or later.

Northern Irish women seeking a legal abortion in England can now benefit from abortion funded by the UK government as of 19th June 2017. There is also a travel bursary for those who cannot afford to travel. Crucially, the report notes this benefit is not guaranteed by law. Travelling for abortion is just a sticking plaster and the ‘emotional, physical and logistical burden for women’ means that this is not a long term solution.

‘27. Testimonies revealed that the stress of undergoing an abortion outside NI is compounded by logistical arrangements and the secrecy within which these must be made; ultimately impacting women’s mental health. Logistical arrangements include: determining a clinic that offers the correct procedure and availability within the necessary timeframe; procuring transportation tickets and hotel reservations, including any transfers; arranging care for any children at home; requesting leave from work; and dealing with unforeseen complications, including an extended stay. For women and girls who do not possess a driver’s licence or passport, securing photographic identification for travel within the tight timeline in which an abortion can be performed is a challenge.’

What is the effect of this report?

The CEDAW report has no legal effect - it cannot directly change the law in Northern Ireland. But it is very significant because it is based on the most comprehensive and in-depth investigation and analysis of Northern Ireland’s abortion laws undertaken to date. It is a strongly-worded and detailed report and will be highly embarrassing to the UK government.

Westminster Needs to Step Up

Women are ‘torn between complying with discriminatory laws that unduly restrict abortion or risk prosecution and imprisonment’. Westminster politicians can no longer sit back while UK citizens are subjected to ‘torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment’ on their watch.


On 22 February 2018, the Government submitted its observations on the report of the inquiry, in accordance with article 8 (4) of the Optional Protocol. The observations of the UK can be found here.

The full report may be found here.

CEDAW is composed of 23 independent human rights experts and oversees the implementation of the Convention by States that have ratified it.