GENEVA (23 February 2018) – The UK violates the rights of women in Northern Ireland by unduly restricting their access to abortion, a UN expert committee has found.
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.
CEDAW is composed of 23 independent human rights experts and oversees the implementation of the Convention by States that have ratified it.
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Ms. Halperin-Kaddari and Mr. Bruun visited Belfast and London from 10-19 September 2016. They held meetings with, among others, Ministers of Communities, Justice, the Attorney General and officials from the Department of Health. They interviewed members of the Norther Ireland Assembly from five political parties, civil society representatives, academics, trade unions and numerous women who sought or procured an abortion.
The Committee’s confidential inquiry took place under Article 8 of the Optional Protocol to the CEDAW Convention, which the UK acceded to in 2004. This gives the Committee the mandate to conduct inquiries into allegations of grave or systematic violations of women’s rights. In 2010, the Committee received information from several organizations alleging that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Norther Ireland (UK) had committed grave and systematic violations of rights under the Convention due to restrictive access to abortion for women and girls in Northern Ireland (NI). Having found the allegations reliable, the Committee designated two members to undertake the inquiry.
To learn more about the Committee on the Elimination of the Discrimination against Women, visit: http://www.ohchr.org/en/hrbodies/cedaw/pages/cedawindex.aspx