Northern Irish women who have been raped, are victims of incest or have fatal foetal abnormalities are not allowed abortions.

Northern Ireland abortion laws are violating women's human rights, the UN has said
Image:Northern Ireland abortion laws are violating women’s human rights, the UN has said

The United Nations has accused the UK of violating women’s human rights by restricting access to abortions in Northern Ireland.

While abortions are provided for free in the rest of the UK, they are only allowed in Northern Ireland if a woman’s life is at risk or there is a serious risk to her mental health.

Women who have been raped, are pregnant due to incest or whose baby has a fatal foetal abnormalities cannot have a legal abortion.

Many Northern Irish women travel to England, Scotland and Wales to have legal abortions on the NHS.

The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women said the law causes “great harm and suffering” to “women and girls who carry pregnancies to full term against their will”.

In a report published by the 23-expert committee, it said: “The committee assesses the gravity of the violations in Northern Ireland in light of the suffering experienced by women and girls who carry pregnancies to full term against their will due to the current restrictive legal regime on abortion.

“It notes the great harm and suffering resulting from the physical and mental anguish of carrying an unwanted pregnancy to full term, especially in cases of rape, incest and severe foetal impairment.

“The situation gives Northern Ireland women three deplorable options: (a) undergo a torturous experience of being compelled to carry a pregnancy to full term; (b) engage in illegal abortion and risk imprisonment and stigmatisation; or, (c) undertake a highly stressful journey outside Northern Ireland to access a legal abortion.

“Women are thus torn between complying with discriminatory laws that unduly restrict abortion or risk prosecution and imprisonment.”

In 2015 it was ruled the Northern Ireland Assembly was responsible for abortion laws
Image:In 2015, it was ruled the Northern Ireland Assembly was responsible for abortion laws

The report makes 13 recommendations, including repealing the criminalisation of abortions in the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act.

It said terminations should be allowed in Northern Ireland in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, sexual crime and when there is a threat to a woman’s health that is not permanent.

UN Human Rights Commission chief commissioner Les Allamby said the situation in the devolved country was wrong and violated women’s human rights.

Mr Allamby said: “Today’s report is timely as the commission is waiting for the outcome of our own legal challenge.”

The report comes as the UK’s Supreme Court is considering whether abortion laws in Northern Ireland are incompatible with international human rights.

Grainne Teggart, Amnesty International’s campaigns manager in Northern Ireland, said: “This damning report from the United Nations confirms what Amnesty has long said, Northern Ireland’s draconian abortion laws are a daily violation of the rights of women and girls.

“The UN committee is very clear that it is the UK Government which is responsible for ensuring that our laws are in line with the state’s international human rights obligations.

“Devolution, even if functioning, does not relieve the UK Government of their responsibility to uphold human rights in Northern Ireland.”

Nola Leach, chief executive of Christian Action Research and Education said the current laws provide “support for the unborn child” and that protection should not be undermined or removed.

In 2015, Belfast’s Court of Appeal ruled it was not up to courts to decide on the country’s abortion law, but up to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

A year later, the Assembly voted against legalising abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality by 59 votes to 40 and in cases of sexual crime by 64 votes to 30.

Last June, Westminster announced women from Northern Ireland were entitled to free NHS abortions in England.