The UK violates the rights of women in Northern Ireland by unduly restricting their access to abortion, a UN expert committee has found.
Alliance for Choice are interested to note that the CEDAW Inquiry report has been published today. Emma Campbell Co-Chair says,
"We want to make humble thanks to the incredible women who bravely gave their testimonies to the CEDAW committee. Alliance for Choice, along with the Family Planning Association and NIWEP, feel vindicated in the report's findings on the many Human Rights breaches occurring daily due to the political lack of will in both Stormont and Westminster. We hope that the UK government will now recognise its responsibility to women in NI and legislate to implement the Committee's recommendations.
In a report published today, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) says thousands of 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 procure a legal abortion or to carry their pregnancy to term.
“The situation in Northern Ireland constitutes violence against women that may amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,” said CEDAW Vice-Chair Ruth Halperin-Kaddari. She visited Northern Ireland in 2016 to conduct a confidential inquiry, together with then-CEDAW member Niklas Bruun, into allegations by civil society organizations that women in Northern Ireland faced grave and systematic violations of their rights. At all stages of the proceedings, the Committee received the full co-operation of the UK Government.
In its report, the Committee concludes that 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. It also potentially amounts to torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, in violation of several articles of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination 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. And it puts women in horrific situations,” said Halperin-Kaddari, a law professor specializing in international women’s rights. Women’s mental anguish was exacerbated when they were forced to carry to term a non-viable foetus (in cases of fatal foetal abnormality) or where the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest, she continued, adding that forcing a woman to continue with her pregnancy in such a situation amounted to unjustifiable State-sanctioned violence.
CEDAW has made 13 recommendations for action, including the establishment of a mechanism to advance women’s rights, including through monitoring authorities’ compliance with international standards concerning access to sexual and reproductive health including access to safe abortions.
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.
Contact Alliance for Choice - Emma Campbell 07894063965, Dr Fiona Bloomer available upon request.
CEDAW is composed of 23 independent human rights experts and oversees the implementation of the Convention by States that have ratified it.
The summary of the findings are as follows:
Grave or systematic nature of the violations
Pursuant to article 8 of the OP and Rule 83 of its Rules of Procedure, the Committee must assess if the violations of rights are grave or systematic.
The Committee considers violations to be “grave” if they are likely to produce substantial harm to victims. A determination regarding the gravity of violations must take into account the scale, prevalence, nature and impact of the violations found.
The term “systematic” refers to the organised nature of the acts leading to the violations and the improbability of their random occurrence.81 The Committee has stressed that a “systematic denial of equal rights for women can take place either deliberately, namely with the State party’s intent of committing those acts or as a result of discriminatory laws or policies, with or without such purpose”.
The Committee assesses the gravity of the violations in NI in light of the suffering experienced by women and girls who carry pregnancies to full term against their will due to the current restrictive legal regime on abortion. It notes the great harm and suffering resulting from the physical and mental anguish of carrying an unwanted pregnancy to full 80 Supra, note 76, para. 47; Canada Inquiry, CEDAW/C/OP.8/CAN/1, para. 213. 81 Supra, note 76, para. 48; Mexico inquiry, CEDAW/C/2005/OP.8/MEXICO, para. 261. 82 Supra, note 76, para. 48. CEDAW/C/OP.8/GBR/1 18 term, especially in cases of rape, incest and severe foetal impairment, particularly FFA.
The situation gives NI women 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. Women are thus torn between complying with discriminatory laws that unduly restrict abortion or risk prosecution and imprisonment.
The systematic nature of the violations stems from the deliberate retention of criminal laws and State policy disproportionately restricting access to sexual and reproductive rights, in general, and highly restrictive abortion provision, in particular. Westminster and NI authorities acknowledge the magnitude of the phenomenon and choose to export it to England where NI women travel to access abortions. The UK’s observations and interviews with NI authorities clarify the deliberate intention neither to decriminalise abortion nor to expand the grounds for legal abortion. Availability of abortion in other parts of the State party does not absolve it of its responsibility under the Convention to ensure accessibility in NI.
The Committee finds that the State party is responsible for:
(a) Grave violations of rights under the Convention considering that the State party’s criminal law compels women in cases of severe foetal impairment, including FFA, and victims of rape or incest to carry pregnancies to full term, thereby subjecting them to severe physical and mental anguish, constituting gender-based violence against women; and
(b) Systematic violations of rights under the Convention considering that the State party deliberately criminalises abortion and pursues a highly restrictive policy on accessing abortion, thereby compelling women to: (i) Carry pregnancies to full term; (ii) Travel outside NI to undergo legal abortion; or (iii) Self-administer abortifacients. VII. Recommendations 84. In the light of the above findings and in line with relevant recommendations addressed to the State party by other United Nations bodies, the Committee refers to its previous concluding observations84 and recommends the following to the State party, focusing on NI. A. Legal and institutional framework
The Committee recommends that the State party urgently:
(a) Repeal sections 58 and 59 of the Offences against the Person Act, 1861 so that no criminal charges can be brought against women and girls who undergo abortion or against qualified health care professionals and all others who provide and assist in the abortion;
(b) Adopt legislation to provide for expanded grounds to legalise abortion at least in the following cases: (i) Threat to the pregnant woman’s physical or mental health without conditionality of “long-term or permanent” effects; (ii) Rape and incest; and 83 Mellet v. Ireland, Human Rights Committee, Communication No. 2324/2013. 84 CEDAW/C/GBR/CO/7 (2013), paras. 50 and 51 CEDAW/C/OP.8/GBR/1 19 (iii) Severe foetal impairment, including FFA, without perpetuating stereotypes towards persons with disabilities and ensuring appropriate and ongoing support, social and financial, for women who decide to carry such pregnancies to term;
(c) Introduce, as an interim measure, a moratorium on the application of criminal laws concerning abortion, and cease all related arrests, investigations and criminal prosecutions, including of women seeking post-abortion care and healthcare professionals;
(d) Adopt evidence-based protocols for healthcare professionals on providing legal abortions particularly on the grounds of physical and mental health; and ensure continuous training on these protocols;
(e) Establish a mechanism to advance women’s rights, including through monitoring authorities’ compliance with international standards concerning access to sexual and reproductive health including access to safe abortions; and ensure enhanced coordination between this mechanism with the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission; and
(f) Strengthen existing data collection and sharing systems between the DHSSPS and the PSNI to address the phenomenon of self-induced abortions. B. Sexual and reproductive health rights and services
The Committee recommends that the State party:
(a) Provide non-biased, scientifically sound and rights-based counselling and information on sexual and reproductive health services, including on all methods of contraception and access to abortion;
(b) Ensure accessibility and affordability of sexual and reproductive health services and products, including on safe and modern contraception, including oral and emergency, long term or permanent and adopt a protocol to facilitate access at pharmacies, clinics and hospitals;
(c) Provide 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;
(d) Make age-appropriate, comprehensive and scientifically accurate education on sexual and reproductive health and rights a compulsory curriculum component for adolescents, covering early pregnancy prevention and access to abortion, and monitor its implementation;
(e) Intensify awareness-raising campaigns on sexual and reproductive health rights and services, including on access to modern contraception;
(f) Adopt a strategy to combat gender-based stereotypes regarding women’s primary role as mothers; and
(g) Protect women from harassment by anti-abortion protestors by investigating complaints, prosecuting and punishing perpetrators