Abortion and sexual and reproductive rights

We campaign in favour of women’s sexual and reproductive rights, in particular with respect to abortion. Our position on abortion is ‘pro-choice’ and we believe that contraception and high-quality, comprehensive relationships and sex education should be widely and freely available.

We have worked through the UK Parliament and by intervening in all recent legal cases to extend abortion access in Northern Ireland, including intervening in the Supreme Court case brought by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission in 2018 surrounding abortion in cases of sexual crime and foetal abnormality, the High Court cases brought by Sarah Ewart and by a mother facing prosecution in Northern Ireland for procuring abortion pills for her underage daughter in 2019. We campaigned in favour of the Northern Ireland (Executive) Formation Act 2019 which made provision for legal abortions.

We have campaigned for abortion to be removed from criminal law in the rest of the UK, assisting in drafting and supporting private members’ bills brought by Diana Johnson MP on this issue. We also support other measures to improve access to abortion, such as home-use of abortion pills and buffer zones around abortion clinics to allow women to access medical services without being harassed or intimidated.

In depth

Abortions in Northern Ireland

As of October 2019, it was announced that abortion in Northern Ireland would be decriminalised. The old abortion law in Northern Ireland was one of the most restrictive in Europe, and the criminal sanctions imposed were amongst the harshest in the world, with the maximum sentence being life imprisonment. Under the old law, abortion was only legally permitted if there is an immediate risk to the woman’s life. Restrictions forced women to either travel to Britain to receive treatment, risk prosecution for procuring illegal online abortion pills, or continue their pregnancies against their wishes and in violation of their rights. There had been no exception made for pregnancies that arise as a result of sexual crime or where there is a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality. We are now delighted that women in Northern Ireland will be able to access to legal, safe and local abortion services after long campaigning for these important rights. The UK Government’s new guidance on abortion in Northern Ireland states that no criminal charges can be brought against those who have had an abortion, or against doctors and other healthcare professionals who provide and assist in an abortion.

We worked with a number of MPs and peers to support amendments to the Northern Ireland (Executive) Formation Act 2019, which compels the UK Government to make regulations for abortion in Northern Ireland should the Northern Ireland Assembly not reconvene by the 21 October 2019. We have also intervened in support of several legal cases to establish that the current restrictions on abortion in Northern Ireland are a violation of human rights. In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled in a case brought by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, and intervened in by Humanists UK, that the law is ‘untenable’, ‘disproportionate’, and in need of ‘radical reconsideration’.

Following the failure of the Northern Ireland Executive to commission abortion services despite decriminalisation, in March 2021, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis decided that the UK Government may have to intervene to force the introduction of services. He laid new regulations which gave him the power to order the Northern Ireland Department of Health to commission abortion services.  In July 2021, Mr Lewis decided to use those powers. In a statement to Parliament, he announced that ‘I have chosen to impose a deadline for the availability of commissioned services of 31 March 2022 to account for the Department of Health’s estimate that it would take 8-12 months to make fully commissioned… services available.’

Decriminalisation of abortion across the UK
We support abortion being removed from criminal law and being governed by medical regulation like all other medical procedures. Currently, abortion is a criminal offence across the UK under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act (OAPA), which states that a woman or anyone assisting her in procuring an abortion can face life imprisonment. We campaign to repeal the relevant sections of OAPA to remove abortion from criminal law.

Since 1967 the Abortion Act has created exceptions to OAPA in England, Wales, and Scotland, allowing women to legally and safety access abortions in certain circumstances and with the consent of two doctors. Although most women are able to access abortion services under the terms of the 1967 Abortion Act, the law has failed to keep pace with medical advances and best practice.

The Abortion Act does not compel doctors with conscientious objections to abortion to take part in the procedure. This position respects people’s differing interpretations of the right to life and its bearing on the issue of abortion. We oppose the right to conscientiously object being extended to other medical professions who are not directly involved in the abortion procedure.

Buffer zones
In recent years there has been a dramatic increase in anti-choice activities around abortion clinics. Women are frequently harassed and intimidated by activists, aiming to prevent them, either through physically blocking them or through emotional cohesion, from accessing medical care for which they have a legal right. We support BPAS’ Back Off campaign which seeks to introduce legislation to establish buffer zones around abortion clinics.

Contraception and relationships and sex education
We believe that it is best if every child is wanted. In addition to our work on abortion, we campaign so that all young people, regardless of their religion or belief, receive full, impartial, and comprehensive relationships and sex education that contains accurate infomration about contraception and abortion, and have access to free contraception. This would allow them to make informed reproductive choices.

What we’re doing

We are a member of the Voice for Choice coalition and we are our Campaigns Officer is its secretary. We are also a member of the End Violence Against Women Coalition. We also work with and support Alliance for Choice in Northern Ireland, as well as other pro-choice groups across the UK such as Abortion Rights, Brook, and the Abortion Support Network. We are currently supporting BPAS’ Back Off campaign, which aims to change the law to make it possible to establish protest-free zones around abortion clinics.

  • In 2019, MPs and peers voted in favour of amendments to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act, which compels the UK Government to make regulations for abortion reform in Northern Ireland if the Northern Ireland Assembly fails to reform by 21 October 2019. We lobbied parliamentarians in support of this, with many members of the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group speaking and voting in favour. We are now working in support of implementation of the new legislation.
  • That change happened after we intervened in several legal cases in favour of this reform. Most significantly, in 2018, we were the first intervener in a case brought by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission that saw the Supreme Court rule that abortion must be made legal in the cases of rape, incest, or fatal foetal abnormality.
  • In 2019, we had a huge result in the Sarah Ewart case which was heard in the High Court of Justice in Belfast. Sarah Ewart was denied an abortion in Northern Ireland in spite of having a fatal foetal abnormality and was forced to travel to England for the termination after being told her pregnancy would not result in a child that could survive outside the womb. In October the court found her human rights were breached, in a landmark decision which should guarantee changes to the country’s restrictive abortion laws and give more women access to safe and legal abortions.
  • We also intervened in that challenged the decision by the Public Prosecution Service in Northern Ireland to bring a prosecution against a mother who had procured abortion pills for her underage daughter who had become pregnant as a result of a sexual crime. In October 2019, we welcomed the decision to acquit the mother, not long after the Northern Ireland announcement to decriminalise abortion.
  • In 2018, we supported efforts to draft a private member’s bill on decriminalisation of abortion, that was introduced to Parliament by Diana Johnson MP. We briefed MPs in support of this Bill which passed its first reading by 208 votes in favour to 123 opposed.

Get involved

Humanists UK consults with its members on sexual and reproductive rights, abortion, fertility, and many other scientific and ethical issues. We welcome your comments on these subjects, which help us to form our policy and campaigns. To date, members have rarely expressed opposition to the legalisation of abortion.

You can also research and take up these issues with your MP and/or local authority, or write to a newspaper. Our Take Action Toolkit has advice on how to go about this.

You can also support Humanists UK by becoming a member. That helps in itself, and you can help even more by supporting our campaigns in the ways suggested above. But campaigns also cost money – quite a lot of money – and we also need financial support. You can make a donation to Humanists UK.