Northern Ireland’s abortion laws are the harshest in Europe and “urgently” need reform, Amnesty International said Friday. Women seeking an illegal abortion face life in prison, even if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.
A report by Amnesty
published Friday called the laws a “significant” breach
of the UK’s international human rights obligations. Due to
restrictive laws and harsh punishments, medical professionals are
fearful of providing legal abortions, the charity claims.
Abortions are currently only permitted if the pregnancy
constitutes a grave health risk to the mother.
Women also face a “postcode lottery,” as many in western
and rural areas are unable to obtain termination treatment.
Grainne Teggart, Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland
campaigner, called for political change.
“Northern Ireland’s draconian abortion law is the harshest in
Europe,” she said. “That grim distinction should be a wake-up
call to politicians. The shameful lack of political action on
this key issue has helped to create a climate of fear for medical
She said women who are forced to go abroad for treatment faced
further “trauma” due to the government’s failings.
“Northern Ireland’s politicians have shirked their
responsibilities to women’s health for too long. The Department
of Health needs to fulfill its duties to women and girls in
Northern Ireland by publishing proper guidance for its frontline
staff, while the Assembly must act without further delay to
reform abortion law.”
Dawn Purvis, program director for Marie Stopes Northern Ireland,
a group that provides sexual health care and advice, called the
current laws “degrading and inhumane.” Until women are
given the freedom to choose, they will remain “second-class
citizens,” she said.
Amnesty’s report comes as Northern Ireland’s Human Rights
Commission won its battle for a judicial review on current
abortion laws earlier in February.
A High Court judge in Belfast ruled the commission had
established a case worthy of a three day hearing, which will take
place in June.
The commission had described the legal action a last resort.
“Termination of pregnancy is currently available in Northern
Ireland if it is necessary to preserve the life of a woman,
including where there is a risk of a serious and adverse effect
on her physical or mental health, which is either long-term or
permanent,” a spokesperson for the commission said.
“The recent consultation published by the DoJ [Department of
Justice] does not commit to making the changes that are necessary
to comply with human rights law.”
“Given the vulnerability of women and girls in these
situations, the commission considers it appropriate to use its
powers and bring this legal challenge in its own name,” the