Abortion Rights Blog

The national pro-choice campaign

Rights to choose for Northern Ireland women

Abortion Rights strongly supports the ongoing attempts of pro-choice MPs to improve women’s abortion rights. A number of positive amendments have been tabled for discussion at the Report stage of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Bill, which is due to be in the autumn. A number of anti-abortion amendments have also been tabled, which we are actively opposing and which we also consider parliament has given a clear view on, at the Committee stage in May.

On Tuesday 22 July the latest of a series of positive amendments to the HFE Bill was tabled. New Clause 30 would extend the rights provided under the 1967 Abortion Act to women in Northern Ireland – who, as a result of an historic injustice continue to be denied the right to choose legal and safe abortion. New Clause 30 is tabled by Diane Abbott MP and a cross-party group of MPs.

Many women – an estimated 50,000 since 1967 – travel to Britain to access abortion. But this means that they are denied the right to be close to home when undertaking this procedure, often have a later termination than they otherwise could have, and almost always have to pay for a procedure that should be available through the National Health Service. Many others, of course, are unable to make this journey or find the financial means to pay for a termination.

Diane Abbott said: ‘Many people do not realise that the 1967 Abortion Act never applied to Northern Ireland . When it comes to the right to choose, women in Northern Ireland are second-class citizens. They are denied the NHS treatment and funding for abortion that is permitted to every other woman in the United Kingdom.’

Dr Audrey Simpson, director of the Family Planning Association Northern Ireland (www.fpa.org.uk) said: ‘A Northern Irish woman in the 21st century who is the victim of rape or incest is expected to give birth, or find up to £2,000 to travel for treatment in England where women have the right to access safe abortion. These are a vulnerable group of women who need support – not to be forced to find money and travel long distances on their own.’

In a recent submission, the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland urged the United Nations Committee on all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) to call on the UK government to provide equal access to reproductive health care for women in Northern Ireland: ‘The Commission recommends that the Committee urges the United Kingdom Government to: respond to CEDAW by calling for the same access to reproductive health care services and rights in Northern Ireland as are available in Great Britain.’
ECNI submission in respect of the 6th Periodic Report of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, March 2008.

In its report to CEDAW, the Northern Ireland Women’s European Platform recommended that: ‘Government should ensure that the legal regulation of abortion in Northern Ireland acknowledges and is compliant with the state’s international human rights obligations; women in Northern Ireland should be able to secure early access to abortion services.’
Shadow Report, Northern Ireland Women’s European Platform, March 2008

In a letter to Members of Parliament sent on 8 July, the Alliance for Choice (equalchoice@aol.com), based in Derry, Northern Ireland, said ‘We appeal to MPs to use the free vote on abortion to extend to women in Northern Ireland the right to this vital healthcare.’ An extensive list of signatories to the letter included Dawn Purvis, MLA Belfast East, Eileen Calder, Director, Belfast Rape Crisis Centre, John Corey, General Secretary, NI Public Sector Alliance (NIPSA), Jimmy Kelly, Regional Secretary, UNITE, Patricia McKeown, Regional Secretary, UNISON, Margaret Ward, Director Women’s Resource and Development Agency (p.c).

The United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in a report in July said: ‘The Committee also notes that the Abortion Act (1967) does not extend to Northern Ireland where, with limited exceptions, abortion continues to be illegal with detrimental consequences for women’s health’. The report further said: ‘In line with its general recommendation 24 on women and health and the Beijing Platform for Action, the Committee also urges the State party to give consideration to the amendment of the abortion law so as to remove punitive provisions imposed on women who undergo abortion.’
Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, Forty-first session, Advanced unedited version: ‘Concluding observations of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women: United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’, 18 July 2008, CEDAW.