Northern Ireland abortion law breaches women’s rights says UN

23 February, 2018

A report by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) has found that the current restrictions on accessing abortion services in Northern Ireland constitute ‘grave’ and ‘systemic’ violations of women’s rights. Humanists UK, which has campaigned for safe, legal, free, and local access to abortion for Northern Ireland women, has welcomed the UN’s findings and hopes that this international condemnation will apply pressure on Northern Ireland and the UK Government to remove these restrictions.

The Committee’s report, published today, found that the UK is responsible for ‘grave violations of rights under the Convention [on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women] considering that the State party’s criminal law compels women in cases of severe foetal impairment, including FFA [fatal foetal abnormality], 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.’

It also found ‘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 Northern Ireland to undergo legal abortion; or (iii) Self-administer abortifacients.’

The law governing abortion in Northern Ireland is one of the most restrictive in Europe, such that abortion is unlawful in all but the most extreme cases. The criminal sanctions imposed are amongst the harshest in the world, with the maximum sentence being life imprisonment. A termination is only lawful when it constitutes a threat to a woman’s life or a serious, permanent, or long term effect on her physical or mental health. There is no exception made for pregnancies that arise as a result of sexual crime or where there is a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality. Humanists UK is currently seeking to change this through an intervention at the Supreme Court. A judgment is pending.

Humanists UK Campaigns Officer Rachel Taggart-Ryan commented, ‘We welcome this report from CEDAW, which has condemned in the strongest terms the restrictive abortion laws in Northern Ireland, responsible for decades of physical and mental detriment to women. It has confirmed that such restrictions are a violation of the rights of women. We now call upon the UK Government to work with Northern Ireland and implement the report’s recommendations, including removing abortion regulation entirely from criminal law throughout the UK.’


For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Campaigns Officer Rachel Taggart-Ryan on or 07951 176 245 or 020 3675 0959, or Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator on or on 07470 395090.

Read the report from CEDAW:

Humanists UK has long campaigned in defence of women’s reproductive rights and has intervened in other cases concerning Northern Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws. Humanists UK’s policies and approach to abortion are informed by its ethical position which supports a woman’s right to dignity and personal autonomy and accordingly to access a safe and lawful abortion with appropriate secular counselling and after-care should she choose to do so. Humanists UK has successfully campaigned to oppose changes to the law in England and Wales that seek to restrict access to abortion. It is a member of the Voice for Choice coalition, the We Trust Women campaign, and the Back Off campaign. Its section Northern Ireland Humanists is a member of the Trust Women coalition, coordinated by Alliance for Choice. In September 2017 Humanists UK spoke out against the restrictive abortion laws enforced in many countries around the world as part of the 36th regular session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva.

Read more about Humanists UK’s campaigns work on abortion:

At Humanists UK, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. Our work brings non-religious people together to develop their own views, helping people be happier and more fulfilled in the one life we have. Through our ceremonies, education services, and community and campaigning work, we strive to create a fair and equal society for all.

Humanists UK recently changed its name from the British Humanist Association:

Northern Ireland Humanists is a part of Humanists UK, working with the Humanist Association of Ireland.