A UN body said on Friday that the United Kingdom is breeching women’s rights in Northern Ireland by unduly restricting their access to abortion.
“The situation in Northern Ireland constitutes violence against women that may amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,” said Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, the vice chairwoman of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).
There is a near-total ban on abortion in Northern Ireland, even in cases of rape, incest, or fetal abnormalities. A pregnancy can be terminated only if the mother’s life is at risk or if it would damage her mental health. The procedure is less restricted in other parts of the UK.
“Denial of abortion and criminalization of abortion amounts to discrimination against women because it is a denial of a service that only women need. And it puts women in horrific situations,” Halperin-Kaddari said.
The UK government rejected the claim that women in Northern Ireland had been subject to grave violations of their rights.
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The CEDAW report made 13 recommendations including that terminations should be permissible in cases of sexual crime, fatal fetal abnormality, and when there is a threat to a woman’s health. It also suggested a change in the law to stop criminal charges being brought against women and girls undergoing abortion. The maximum penalty for an illegal abortion in Northern Ireland is life imprisonment.
Amnesty International backed the report and called on the government to introduce abortion reform at Westminster, according to the BBC.
The situation mirrors that south of the border in the Republic of Ireland where abortion is heavily restricted and only legal when a woman’s life is at risk. Abortion pills are routinely – but illegally – ordered over the internet to both regions from online services like Women on Web to administer medical abortions at home.
Hundreds of women from Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic travel to other parts of the UK every year to procure legal abortions. In 2016, 724 women traveled from Northern Ireland to England and Wales to obtain an abortion, and 3,265 made the trip from the Republic.
The traditionally Catholic Irish Republic is due to hold a historic referendum on abortion in May that could settle years of turbulent debate on the subject.
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