Written evidence submitted by the sexual health charity, FPA
FPA is one of the UK’s leading sexual health charities.
Our mission is to champion people’s right to sexual and reproductive health and wellbeing through advocacy, information, education and campaigning.
We do this through providing evidence-based sexual health information to the public and professionals. FPA provides sexuality and relationships education programmes and campaigns for high-quality education and sexual health services. We also offer training to professionals.
Our programme of work also includes the provision of the only impartial pregnancy choices and post-abortion counselling service in Northern Ireland. Our two centres in Belfast and Derry/Londonderry support around 300 women each year, who access the service through our helpline or by referral from a GP or sexual health clinic.
To find out more about FPA and our work, please visit: www.fpa.org.uk
Introduction and summary
FPA welcomes the launch of the Women and Equalities Select Committee enquiry into the Government’s plans for achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goal 5 (SDG5). As our expertise lies in the production and promotion of evidence-based sexual and reproductive health information, our submission will focus on the aim to ‘ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights’, with particular reference to Northern Ireland’s highly restrictive abortion legislation.
As the 1967 Abortion Act does not apply in Northern Ireland, access to abortion is covered by sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. A woman found in direct contravention of the Act will be put in ‘penal servitude for life’. Section 25 (1) of the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1945 states that ‘no person shall be found guilty of an offence under this section unless it is proved that the act which caused the death of the child was not done in good faith for the purpose only of preserving the life of the mother.’ The ‘life of the mother’ in this context has been interpreted by the courts as including her physical and mental health. The adverse effect on her mental or physical health must be a ‘real and serious’ one, and must also be ‘permanent or long term’.
As a result of this legislation, only 16 abortions were carried out in Northern Ireland in 2014/15. Instead, 833 women were forced to travel from Northern Ireland to England and Wales to access services that would have been freely available in any other part of the UK, with many more risking prosecution by taking safe but illegal abortion medication sourced online.
In April this year a woman was handed a three month suspended sentence for self-inducing an abortion in Northern Ireland, because she could not afford the cost of travel to England and the expense of a private procedure.
The situation is a clear violation of human rights and in direct opposition to the aims of SDG5. Throughout our submission, we aim to answer some the Committee’s questions by providing:
- A background to the situation in Northern Ireland, with reference to human rights legislation
- The UK Government’s current position
- What action the UK Government needs to take in order to achieve universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights
We would welcome the opportunity to provide further evidence if called upon.
Violation of reproductive rights in Northern Ireland
As explained in the introduction, abortion legislation in Northern Ireland prevents women from accessing sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights, as required for the UK to meet the aims of SDG5.
As a signatory to UN conventions, the UK has already been criticised by the UN on its failure to meet its duties in regard to reproductive rights. In 2009 the Committee on the Elimination of All Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) called on the UK Government to ‘initiate a process of public consultation in Northern Ireland on the abortion law….[and also] give consideration to the amendment of the abortion law so as to remove punitive provisions imposed on women who undergo abortion.’ Again in 2013, the Committee restated that, ‘the State party [UK Government] should expedite the amendment of the anti-abortion law in Northern Ireland with a view to decriminalise abortion.’
In 2016, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights also stated its concern that ‘termination of pregnancy in Northern Ireland is still criminalised in all circumstances except when the life of the woman is in danger’ and recommended that the UK ‘amend the legislation on termination of pregnancy in Northern Ireland to make it compatible with other fundamental rights, such as women’s rights to health, life and dignity.’ In the same year, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child also called for the decriminalisation of abortion ‘with a view to ensuring girls’ access to safe abortion and post-abortion care services.’
UK court judgements
UK courts have also found the law to be a violation of reproductive rights. In November 2015, the High Court in Belfast ruled that prohibition of abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality and sexual crime violated UK human rights commitments, specifically the right to private and family life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
After further submissions, the Court found it was not possible to read the present legal framework in a way that protected Article 8 and so section 4 of the Human Rights Act 1998 was used to issue a declaration of incompatibility which places the onus on the legislature to remedy the incompatibility through legislative reform. This was a significant move by the Northern Ireland High Court, one of only 30 declarations of incompatibility made across the UK since 2000 and one of two made by Northern Irish courts.
The UK Government’s current position
In the context of international development, the UK Government supports universal reproductive rights. The Department for International Development (DfID), in a range of publications, has indicated that it considers safe and legal abortion a right. In 2014, for example, a DfID document outlining policy on abortion stated that ‘women and adolescent girls must have the right to make their own decisions about their sexual and reproductive health and well-being, and be able to choose whether, when and how many children to have… Safe abortion reduces recourse to unsafe abortion and saves maternal lives… In countries where it is highly restricted and maternal mortality and morbidity are high, we can help make the consequences of unsafe abortion more widely understood, and can consider supporting processes of legal and policy reform”.
However, the UK has not engaged the Northern Ireland Assembly through ‘processes of legal and policy reform’, instead stating that abortion is a health issue, with sole responsibility lying with the Northern Ireland Assembly. For example, in 2016, then-Leader of the House Chris Grayling MP (responding to a question about prosecution) stated that: “I am not personally in favour of women who seek an abortion being punished for doing so, but, of course, this is a devolved matter. We have taken a conscious decision to pass that matter into the hands of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and I am afraid that we cannot easily have it both ways”.
This is also the response of the Northern Ireland Office. In answer to a Written Question, then-Northern Ireland Minister Ben Wallace MP stated that “The issue of abortion in Northern Ireland is a matter devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly”.
However, progress in the Assembly is slow. The power-sharing Government in Northern Ireland does not supports significant reform in the law. Research has shown that debates in the Assembly are most often high on anti-abortion rhetoric and low on practical approaches to extending reproductive rights.
As recently as February 2016, the Assembly voted 59 to 40 not to legislate to allow abortion even when a fatal foetal abnormality has been detected. The Assembly also voted 64 to 32 against legislation which would provide exemptions if a woman or girl was the victim of sexual crime. Abortion in these situations remains a criminal offence with a sentence of up to life imprisonment. This demonstrates that changing public opinion is not being taken into account, with a recent Amnesty International UK poll reporting that 72% of people support a change in the law.
In order to achieve ‘universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights’, the UK Government needs to open a dialogue with the Assembly, working in partnership to deliver change.
In the UK, women have been and continue to be prosecuted for accessing safe but illegal abortion medication, with the most recent case reported in October 2016. Women with means are able to travel from Northern Ireland to Great Britain and pay for private procedures, leaving those without financial resources at highest risk.
Despite the concerning increases in prosecution and multiple judgements by international bodies and UK courts, there seems to be little will within the UK Government to recognise responsibility for Northern Ireland’s restrictive abortion legislation, as demonstrated through repeated ministerial statements that it is a ‘health issue’ and therefore a matter for the Northern Ireland Assembly alone.
This cannot continue. The UK is failing to meet the ambitious requirements set out by SDG5, as Northern Ireland’s restrictive abortion legislation violates human rights and discriminates against women and girls.
We urge the Committee to call on the Northern Ireland Office (which holds responsibility for protecting human rights in Northern Ireland) to proactively engage with the Northern Ireland Assembly in order to extend reproductive rights.
For more information on fpa’s work in Northern Ireland
 Northern Ireland termination of pregnancy statistics, 2014/15 (Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, 2016) https://www.health-ni.gov.uk/news/northern-ireland-termination-pregnancy-statistics-201415
 Abortion Statistics, England and Wales: 2015 (Department of Health, 2016) https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/570040/Updated_Abortion_Statistics_2015.pdf
 Northern Ireland woman who bought abortion pills given suspended prison sentence (Belfast Telegraph, 2016) http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/northern-ireland-woman-who-bought-abortion-pills-given-suspended-prison-sentence-34597487.html
 Concluding Observations regarding the United Kingdom (CEDAW, 2009) http://docstore.ohchr.org/SelfServices/FilesHandler.ashx?enc=6QkG1d%2fPPRiCAqhKb7yhsvglKm%2f71Q4iogAZSMgJYVtfejF48hHZ5kPQbcJTVDMbsiyAQsMiUFbUhCFmudQTE8qIl8Mg1QIVFwkJtOqmeK03ZvY82v3OJxLHlRo%2bVuVP
 Concluding Observations regarding the United Kingdom (CEDAW, 2013) http://docstore.ohchr.org/SelfServices/FilesHandler.ashx?enc=6QkG1d%2fPPRiCAqhKb7yhsldCrOlUTvLRFDjh6%2fx1pWB8bSlKfa34XmmIN3lG11hwWhjFqrEprJHQfoipZTwnVkhDALmzaR6gCklPapM2exTMh89SX7GUOJHbH%2bN8Qq9U
 Concluding observations (CESCR, 2016) http://docstore.ohchr.org/SelfServices/FilesHandler.ashx?enc=4slQ6QSmlBEDzFEovLCuW3XRinAE8KCBFoqOHNz%2fvuCC%2bTxEKAI18bzE0UtfQhJkxxOSGuoMUxHGypYLjNFkwxnMR6GmqogLJF8BzscMe9zpGfTXBkZ4pEaigi44xqiL
 Concluding observations (CRC, 2016) http://docstore.ohchr.org/SelfServices/FilesHandler.ashx?enc=6QkG1d%2fPPRiCAqhKb7yhskHOj6VpDS%2f%2fJqg2Jxb9gncnUyUgbnuttBweOlylfyYPkBbwffitW2JurgBRuMMxZqnGgerUdpjxij3uZ0bjQBOLNTNvQ9fUIEOvA5LtW0GL
 Court declares abortion law in Northern Ireland breaches European Convention on Human Rights by failing to provide exceptions to ban (Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunal Service, 2015)
 Safe and unsafe abortion: The UK’s policy position on safe and unsafe abortion in developing countries (DfID, 2014) https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/324590/safe-unsafe-abortion2.pdf
 Abortion: Northern Ireland: Written question – 8921 (House of Commons Publications and Records, 2016) http://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/written-questions-answers-statements/written-question/Commons/2015-09-04/8921/
 Critiquing Recent Abortion Law and Policy in NI (Fiona Bloomer and Eileen Fegan, 2013) Critical Social Policy 34: 109-120 http://csp.sagepub.com/content/early/2013/08/16/0261018313496190
 Official Report: Wednesday 10 February 2016 (Northern Ireland Assembly 2016) http://aims.niassembly.gov.uk/officialreport/report.aspx?&eveDate=2016/02/10&docID=258728
 Northern Ireland: Nearly 3/4 of public support abortion law change (Amnesty International UK, 2016) https://www.amnesty.org.uk/press-releases/northern-ireland-nearly-34-public-support-abortion-law-change-new-poll-0
 NI woman charged over abortion pills (BBC, 2016) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-37789341