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2019 National Women's Conference
25 October 2018

Conference notes with serious concern that following the result of the referendum in Ireland to repeal the 8th Amendment of the Irish Constitution, Northern Ireland will become the only jurisdiction in these islands to persist with restrictive abortion laws that breach human rights. Conference believes that the time has come for Parliament to take clear action to address the situation.

Theresa May has taken the position that Westminster legislating in this area would breach the devolution settlement, something her Government seems to have no difficulty with in relation to the claw-back of powers within the EU Withdrawal Act. Whilst both health and justice are devolved matters, this position disregards the obligation placed on the Westminster Parliament under the Good Friday Agreement to: “legislate as necessary to ensure the United Kingdom’s international obligations are met in respect of Northern Ireland’’ (Paragraph 33(b), Strand 1).

Northern Ireland abortion law is incompatible with international human rights obligations which the UK has signed and ratified. Most recently the UN Committee for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women has found in February 2018 that the current law on abortion in Northern Ireland “violates the rights of women in Northern Ireland by unduly restricting their access to abortion”.

The legal basis for the effective ban on abortion is a Westminster law, Sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Persons Act 1861. This law is 150 years old and covers the outdated offences of ‘child-stealing’ and the use of gunpowder to blow up a building. The UN has called the law and the refusal of Westminster to act, a ‘‘grave and systematic violation’ of human rights’’. The UK Supreme Court has been clear that the current law treats women as “vehicles”, is ‘‘untenable’’ and needs ‘‘radical reconsideration’’. The UN Committee for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women has called for the repeal of legislation criminalising abortion under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 and urged that the UK legislate to provide for expanded grounds to legalise abortion in a range of areas.

The UK Supreme Court has recently found that the current law in Northern Ireland is disproportionate and incompatible with Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) in so far as it prohibits abortion on the grounds of rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality. The Court however did not issue a formal declaration of incompatibility due to the manner in which the case was taken. Conference believes that the views of the court in relation to the current restrictive laws compatibility with human rights are clear. Conference considers it inevitable that the law will be deemed incompatible with the ECHR in due course.

Conference therefore calls on the National Women’s Committee to work with the NEC and the Northern Ireland Women’s Committee to demand that the UK Government:

• Repeal Sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Persons Act 1861, and;

• Introduce legislation through Parliament to ensure that the law in Northern Ireland is compatible with international human rights obligations, in order to guarantee that women in Northern Ireland do not continue to suffer a serious deficit in rights protections.