UK government under new pressure from MPs to move on NI abortion law reform

Photograph: Niall Carson/PA

 The all –party Women and Equalities committee of MPs is demanding that the UK government puts pressure on the Assembly –if  it resumes – to reform the province’s uniquely restrictive abortion laws by supporting an appeal to the Human Rights Court at Strasbourg.     

The government must inform Parliament within six months when it intends to allow the NI Human Rights commission to make the appeal to the Strasbourg court rather than requiring a woman with an unwanted pregnancy to do so, says the report.    

“The UK Supreme Court identified a breach of human rights in relation to cases of fatal foetal abnormality, rape and incest. It did not make a declaration of incompatibility because the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, which brought the case, did not have standing. Nevertheless, this is a strong statement by the highest court in the land. The UK Government must set out a timetable for rectifying the error in the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission’s standing within the next six months so that an individual victim, such as a victim of rape or incest, does not have to take a case to court.

Guidance for healthcare professionals: There is uncertainty about the legality of doctors in Northern Ireland referring patients to the UK Government funded scheme providing free abortions in England and there can be a conflict between healthcare professionals’ duties to their patients, and the law and guidance on abortion in Northern Ireland. This is unacceptable. The Government Equalities Office should publish its legal advice on the scheme funding women and girls from Northern Ireland to access abortions in England, following which, the Department of Health for Northern Ireland should reissue guidance for healthcare professionals making it clear that referring patients to the funded scheme is not unlawful.

Information for women and girls about the remains of the foetus or unborn child: There is not enough information for women and girls who travel outside of Northern Ireland about their options to bring home the remains of the foetus or unborn child.

While the MPs respect the principle of devolution and believe it is rightly the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Assembly to legislate on matters relating to abortion law…  there are specific obligations for the Northern Ireland Assembly not to pass Acts that are contrary to the UK’s international obligations. Furthermore, devolution does not remove the UK Government’s own responsibilities to comply with its international obligations and internal laws cannot be used to justify a failure to comply with human rights standards.”

Committee chair, the Conservative former cabinet minister Maria Miller said the report “sets out action which the government must take to address” the lack of clarity.

Ms Miller said: “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.”

The committee does not go the whole hog and recommend abortion on the GB terms of the 1967 Abortion Act.  Prompted by the report, leading Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee who is an equally passionate Remainer has launched a scathing attack on the NI’s two main parties  but reserves most of her bile for the DUP.  

“Direct rule from Westminster doesn’t bother the DUP, nor apparently does a hard border that would cripple both north and south. McKee’s death wasn’t needed as a reminder of how such a border could revive bloodshed that never altogether went away. Meanwhile, Sinn Féin’s own obduracy means it won’t seize the great chance to ride into Westminster with its 7 MPs to save Northern Ireland from Brexit, keep open the border and bring north and south closer. If only the party would: it’s not too late and it would advance the cause of a united Ireland. But it won’t, because of all the history that English commentators ignore at our peril.

The committee heard Northern Irish womens’ stories, including the shocking case of a 12-year-old rape victim who had to travel to Britain for an abortion accompanied by the police told to seize “the products of conception” for evidence. It’s hard to imagine that such filthy brutality can happen in a place that says it’s a part of our country. The British Pregnancy Advisory Service says too many women can’t travel to Britain: those in abusive relationships and those too ill to travel or too young. Besides, what kind of absurd law is this – it’s a moral crime punishable with a long prison term, but it’s OK to travel to commit it across the sea?

The bigoted, Bible-bashing, tribal Ulster face of the DUP we see at Westminster is a travesty as a representation of the Northern Irish people, as out of kilter over abortion as over Brexit. The most recent poll by Amnesty last October found that 66% in Northern Ireland think that, in the absence of the assembly, Westminster should act to change the law; 65% agree that abortion should not be a crime. Even 67% of DUP voters said that having an abortion should not be a crime.

The select committee is far too tentative, wanting abortion to be permitted only in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, but with a timeline for bringing all women’s rights into line with the rest of the UK. But the only rationale for stepping in is to fully equalise women’s rights across the UK. To be in the UK, they must accept fundamental UK rights.

Will the government do it? The boneheaded Northern Ireland secretary, Karen Bradley, who admitted when she took office that she didn’t know that electoral politics in Northern Ireland split along sectarian lines, is only allowed out with official lines written for her. She duly repeats the DUP-appeasing official take: “It would not be right for the UK government to undermine the devolution settlement by trying to force on the people of Northern Ireland something that we in Westminster think is right … It is right, constitutionally and morally, that these decisions are taken in Stormont.”

While this law against women persists, Northern Ireland is not truly a part of Britain. The DUP protest against any red line dividing the province from the rest of the UK, yet this is a red line that divides them from UK standards of civilisation, redder than a few customs checks on English goods arriving at Port of Larne.

The DUP can’t have it both ways – either they belong to the UK or they can cling to their brutal, primitivist treatment of women, but as a separate country. Don’t expect May’s government to do this. But since her time is up, what better revenge against the DUP, who took her bungs but still won’t back her? It would at least be one worthwhile legacy on May’s empty page of history”.