A Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland: an interim statement - Northern Ireland Affairs Committee Contents

Written evidence from the Alliance for Choice


  1.  Alliance for Choice welcomes the opportunity to provide evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on a Human Rights Bill for Northern Ireland. Our evidence relates to reproductive rights, specifically the right to abortion in Northern Ireland. We at Alliance for Choice believe that a Human Rights Bill for Northern Ireland should be consistent with current international standards and reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland. We therefore reject the Northern Ireland Human's Rights Commission (Dec 2008) assertion in their advice to the Secretary of State that "it is inappropriate for abortion to be dealt with in a Bill of Rights".

2.  Northern Ireland continually fails to meet international human rights standards due to the failure to decriminalise abortion and provide women access to safe and free abortions similar to other women in the United Kingdom. Abortion is legal in Northern Ireland in some circumstances but access is severely restricted and abortion law is still bound by the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. Other parts of the United Kingdom rely on the 1967 Abortion Act for abortion law.

3.  Alliance for Choice is an organisation that campaigns for the extension of the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland. It is made up of women and men, from both Catholic and Protestant communities in the North of Ireland, who want to see equality and self-determination for women here. Alliance for Choice was set up in 1996, emerging from the Women's Right to Choose Group, to encourage the incoming Labour government to implement Labour Party policy to extend the Act.

  4.  Much of our work has been about making heard the voices of the tens of thousands of women from NI who have had abortions in England and elsewhere since 1967—thereby exposing the hypocrisy of the politicians who say there is "no demand for abortion rights" in NI.

  Ms. C:

    "When I was aged 25 and my daughter Caroline was almost eight, I went for a pregnancy test at the LIFE offices. My distress at the positive test was so great, the counsellor took some time to calm me down. I explained that Caroline has severe autism and challenging behaviour. As a lone parent, I was just about managing to keep her in the community. Another child would mean that Caroline would end up in care and I wasn't having that.

    The counsellor said that maybe God was sending me this child `to make up for Caroline'. This insult to my darling daughter summed up the `pro-life' attitude for me. Getting respite care for a few days to allow me to go to England was very difficult, although the all my friends rallied round with money, so that part wasn't too bad.

    Five years on, Caroline is still at home with me and her behaviour is greatly improved. If I had continued that pregnancy, I have no doubt that she would be in care and much, much worse in her behaviour and abilities."


  5.  The DHSS&PS published guidance on the termination of pregnancy in Northern Ireland following a Judicial Review brought by the Family Planning Association in 2004. The Review found that the DHSS&PS had failed in its statutory duty to issue guidance in relation to the termination of pregnancy in Northern Ireland and to investigate the difficulties in obtaining services for the termination of pregnancy.

6.  The Guidance was published on 13th March 2009. The Guidance produced by the DHSS&PS appears to present a number of additional barriers such as need a psychological assessment and the use of chaplaincy services.

  7.  Alliance for Choice believes that these additional barriers and indeed the Guidance are not compatible with international human rights standards and do not guarantee access to abortion service in Northern Ireland. It is these "particular circumstances" that should be included in a Human Rights Bill for Northern Ireland.


Platform for Action

  8. The Platform for Action, agreed at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, stated that:

    "... the neglect of women's reproductive rights severely limits their opportunities in public and private life, including opportunities for education and economic empowerment. The ability of women to control their own fertility forms an important basis for the enjoyment of other rights. Shared responsibility between women and men in matters related to sexual and reproductive behaviour is also essential to improving women's health".

    The Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women

    9. The United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), in Article 12 refers to "access to health care", and specifically includes family planning. The General Recommendation 24: on Health states that, "it is discriminatory for a State Party to refuse to legally provide for the performance of certain reproductive health services for women".[65] The General Recommendation points to barriers such as criminalising medical procedures only needed by women who undergo those procedures as well as high fees, requirement of spousal, parental or hospital authorisation and inaccessibility because of distance or travel.

    10. The Government in its 4th (1999) and 6th Periodic Report (2007) of the United Kingdom and Great Britain and Northern Ireland (May 2007) to the CEDAW Committee states that the 1967 Abortion Act does not apply to Northern Ireland and is not devolved to the Assembly.

      11. Concluding comments from the Committee on hearing the 4th Periodic Report in 1999, were highly critical of the failure to provide abortion services to women of Northern Ireland and,

    "... noted with concern that the Abortion Act 1967 does not extend to Northern Ireland where, in limited exceptions, abortion continues to be illegal. It recommends a process of public consultation on reform of the abortion law".[66]

  12. Concluding Comments of the CEDAW Committee in July 2008 were equally damming, by calling again for a public consultation process on abortion law and in line with General Recommendation 24 and the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action to consider amending abortion law "to remove the punitive provision imposed on women who undergo abortion".

The European Convention on Human Rights

  13. The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) has also been tested on the issue of abortion. Recently in Tysiac v Poland,[67] the European Court (ECrtHR) held that failure to provide an abortion to a woman where her pregnancy threatened her health was a violation of Article 8, "Right to Respect for Private and Family Life". The Court held that the "chilling effect" on doctors due to the uncertainty of the law and the possibility of them incurring criminal responsibility must be alleviated. The legal framework, "... must first and foremost, ensure clarity of the pregnant woman's position".

14. In June 1993, the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights (SACHR) issued a public consultation document on the issue of abortion. Written by Simon Lee, Professor of Law at the Queen's University of Belfast, it observed that: "The law on abortion in Northern Ireland is so uncertain that it violates the standards of international human rights law. It could not withstand a challenge before the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg."

  15. A pamphlet produced by the NIHRC in 2001, "The Bill of Rights: Women"[68] states that it is probable that the current law in Northern Ireland is likely to be in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights, for failing to provide for abortion and for not being clear as to the legality of the current situation.

Foetal Rights?

  16. The concentration of foetal rights in medical discourse and social conscience reinforces the notion of foetal rights, despite no basis in law. However, the ECHR has been tested on whether it covers foetal rights through Article 2, "Right to Life", in Vo v France.[69] The patient was six months pregnant and as a result of confusion with another patient who was to have a coil removed, the applicant lost her unborn child. In attempting to remove the coil, the doctor ruptured the amniotic sac causing loss of fluid, which resulted in her losing her unborn child. Under French law, she could not bring criminal proceedings, as the foetus cannot be the victim of unintentional homicide. The ECrtHR held that it was not practicable to answer in the abstract whether the unborn child is a person for the purposes of Article 2 (Overy and White, 2006).

17. Whilst the ECrtHR has not expressly recognised the right to abortion, the Grand Chamber judgement in Vo stressed that any right to life enjoyed by the foetus is "implicitly limited by the mother's rights and interests".[70]

  18. The Republic of Ireland has however codified foetal rights within its constitution. Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution provides:

    "The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right".[71]

  19. A series of challenges have been made to this, notably the X case,[72] D case,[73] where the competing rights of the woman and the foetus were discussed in terms of foetal rights and the right to travel.

  20. Samiloff (2007) in considering whether Irish abortion law breaches human rights law argues that the right to travel has now been established, but the rights of the foetus remain open to challenge. He suggests that it is likely that Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution is in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.

International Law

  21. O'Rourke (2007) in her Shadow Report submission to the 6th Periodic Report of the UK, notes that the provision of non-directive information and advice on healthcare is integral to Article 12, "Right to Health", of CEDAW and points to the difficulty of availing of this service in Northern Ireland. She notes how the Brook Advisory Clinic, which provides free confidential advice to young people, does not include referral services for abortion; and the Fpa offices in Belfast and Derry are frequently picketed by anti-abortion campaigners and religious groups. Women and staff are harassed and intimidated as they enter these premises, which she argues, goes beyond the freedom of assembly guaranteed under international human rights treaties.

Ms. A:

    "It was 1993 and my youngest child was eight years old when I found myself pregnant again. My marriage had broken up a few years before and my husband had left me to raise our five children alone with no support, financial or emotional. I had returned to education as a mature student and I was in the final year of my degree.

    All the struggling to keep up with home and University was about to pay off. I was just months away from my final exams. When I told the man I was seeing that I was pregnant, he just didn't want to know. He had children of his own from a previous relationship and wouldn't be around to help, no matter what I decided to do.

    Even though I was raised a Catholic and I didn't agree with abortion, when I was faced with these circumstances, I felt I had no other choice. It took five weeks from when I decided to have a termination to raise the money to travel over. I borrowed money from friends, lying to some and trusting others with my secret. I had to use the phone-bill money as well, so we got cut off just before I left for London. Northern Ireland is part of the UK, so I don't understand why I couldn't have the abortion here".


  22. It is assumed that there is strong opposition to abortion in Northern Ireland. However, the evidence that does exist suggests that public opinion is broadly sympathetic to a liberalisation of abortion law:

    — The Ulster Marketing Surveys conducted in May 1992, February 1993 and August 1994 show significant increases in the number of people who supported abortion at the request of the woman.

    — In 2000-01 a survey of women attending British abortion clinics, carried out by Marie Stopes International found that 95% would have preferred to have their abortion in Northern Ireland—44% had to borrow money, 68% knew of other women who also had abortions and 95% supported the extension of the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland.[74]

    — The Northern Ireland Assembly on 20 June 2000 debated a motion on abortion and a poll by the Belfast Telegraph on the day of the debate reported that fifty eight percent of respondents felt that abortion on demand should be legalised.[75]

  23.   The British Medical Association has called for the extension of the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland as have the majority of Trade Unions.


  24. This service for women in England and Wales is provided under the National Health Service, in that it is provided free of charge. Women from Northern Ireland have to access abortion services through the private sector and pay for travel and accommodation. For women on low incomes and women in rural areas, these barriers can have serious implications.

25. The cost of an abortion from Marie Stopes International is in the region of £550 to £670 depending on gestation period and choice of anaesthetic. For women from the island of Ireland, this is reduced to £410 to £500, to acknowledge the restrictions and limitations in terms of the legislative, public policy and service provision arenas. In addition to the cost of the procedure, flights and accommodation need to be factored in (approximately £250 to £350). This does not take account of the emotional and distressing nature of having to travel in secret and often alone.

  26. Issues of the provision of information, non-directive counselling and follow-up care for women who have undergone abortions need to be considered also:

  Ms. G:

    "I really thought felt so close to insanity when I discovered I was pregnant. It should have been an ideal time—my son was just two years old, the perfect time to conceive a sibling. But Michael has severe brain damage and the prognosis was that he would never walk, talk, see, hear, get out of nappies. I was already traumatised by that knowledge and the idea of having another baby—with the danger that the same thing might happen again—it just terrified me in a way that I can't describe. I can say that I understood for the first time how women can risk their lives using knitting needles or coat hangers to cause an abortion, because I felt desperate enough to do that. I had nightmares that somehow I would be stopped before I got to England and forced to continue the pregnancy. I was unable to function for the five weeks I had to wait until I was far enough along to have a termination. Although I needed him with me, my partner couldn't accompany me although he wanted to because someone had to look after our son; if I had been able to have the termination in our local hospital, it would have been far easier for the whole family. From what I understand now about the law here, I think I was certainly entitled to an abortion in my local hospital because `nervous wreck' underestimates how traumatised I was".


  27. The "Other Irish Journey", published by Marie Stopes International in 2001, outlines the findings of a survey of Northern Irish women attending abortion clinics in GB. The report reveals the nature of the barriers faced by women from Northern Ireland in assessing abortion services:

    — that there was widespread mistrust of GPs with some women feeling that they were legally entitled to an abortion in Northern Ireland but found that their GP was confused about their rights;

    — only 11% of the sample contacted their GP for information on clinics;

    — interviews revealed confusion amongst GPs about abortion provision; and

    — almost half had to borrow money to finance their abortion.

  28. The Fpa in its response to the DHSS&PS Draft Guidance argue that it is not uncommon in Northern Ireland for all doctors in a group practice to object to abortion on conscientious objection grounds. The legal right for health professionals to opt out of providing treatment or care for pregnant women comes under the provisions of Article 4 of the 1967 Abortion Act, "conscientious objection to participation in treatment". As this does not apply to Northern Ireland, health professionals are not protected in this instance.


  29. Alliance for Choice believes that the current situation in Northern Ireland in relation to abortion is unacceptable and it is important that a Human Rights Bill for Northern Ireland locates this as a human rights issue for women. It is no longer right that in the 21st Century and in a modern democracy, that women, in one part of the United Kingdom are denied access to abortion services close to home. The need to travel and pay for abortion places unacceptable financial and emotional burdens on women in addition to unnecessary health risks.

30. Alliance for Choice believes that the essence of a Human Rights Bill for Northern Ireland should be to put the emphasis on the protection and promotion of women's human rights in relation to health and well-being, allowing for the exercise of personal conscience at individual level.

April 2009

65   General Recommendation 24, "Health," 1999 CEDAW Committee. Back

66   Committee on Elimination of Discrimination Against Women concludes Consideration of UK Reports, WOM/1132, 10 June 1999. Back

67   Tysiac v Poland 5410/03 20 March 2007. Back

68   NIHRC, January 2001, "The Bill of Rights: Women"; p 13. Back

69   (App. 53924/00), Judgement of the Grand Chamber 8 July 2004;(2005) 40 EHHR 259. Back

70   Plomer, 2005, p 332. Back

71   Constitution of Ireland, July 1937. Back

72   Attorney General v X [1992] I.R.1. A young girl was raped and as a result of this became pregnant and was restrained from travelling to England to obtain a termination. An appeal to the Supreme Court in Ireland held that the young girl had a right to an abortion under Article 40.3.3 if there was a "real and substantial risk" to her life. Back

73   D v Ireland (App 26499/02) 28 June 2006. A young woman (D), pregnant with a foetus with anencephaly, a condition where a major part of the brain is missing, was being refused the right to travel to obtain an abortion in England. Back

74   Rossiter and Sexton (2001) The Other Irish Journey. MSI. Back

75   Fegan, E, Rebouche, R (2003) "Northern Ireland's Abortion Law: The Morality of Silence and the Censure of Agency". Feminist Legal Studies No 11 pp 221-254. Back

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