UK Report: Govt Must Act On NI Abortion Laws

The government must act to address the "confusion, fear and inequality" surrounding abortion law in Northern Ireland, a UK report has found.

The House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee highlighted the impact of the political stalemate in the region, with no devolved government to respond to developments, no scrutiny bodies to ensure policies are running well and no monitoring of UK Government funds for women and girls travelling to England for an abortion.

It also highlighted a failure to respond to international human rights obligations, with a UN Committee finding "grave" and "systematic" breaches of women's rights.

The power sharing institutions were dissolved in January 2017 when the DUP and Sinn Fein split in a bitter row over a flawed energy scheme. Government departments have been operating ever since without Ministerial guidance.

The UK Supreme Court also identified a breach in relation to cases involving foetal fatal abnormality or pregnancies that resulted from rape or incest, and said evidence of significant numbers of abortion pills that have been purchased online and sent to the region has not been addressed.
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Lack of clarity about the current legal standing of abortion is creating confusion, according to Committee Chair Maria Miller. She said: "We heard evidence from a wide range of witnesses both in Northern Ireland-in Belfast, Antrim and Derry/Londonderry- and in Westminster.

"These included doctors, nurses and midwives, lawyers, Ministers and officials, organisations representing a range of views, and women who spoke to us about their own experiences.

"The lack of clarity about the current legal situation is creating confusion, fear and inequality. Our report sets out action which the Government must take to address this."

The UN body monitoring women's rights has recommended that the UK Government sets out a clear framework and timeline to address the breaches. It also urged the government to establish a measure within the next six months to allow victims of rape or incest to seek abortions without taking cases to court.

Ms Miller added: "The situation of a woman or girl who became pregnant as a result of rape or incest having to pursue a court case highlights precisely why it should not depend on an individual victim to take a case to court. This must be rectified urgently."

Another issue raised in the study was the uncertainty for doctors in NI referring patients to the UK Government funded scheme providing free abortions in England, with conflict often arising between the duties of healthcare professionals to their patients and the law. The Government Equalities Office has been urged to publish its legal advice on the matter, while the Department of Health should reissue guidance for healthcare professionals.


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