The UN, CEDAW and abortion law in Northern Ireland

The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women has published the report of its inquiry concerning the United Kingdom under Article 8 of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), together with the response of the United Kingdom Government.

On the issue of abortion law in Northern Ireland, the Committee recommends that the UK:

“(a) Repeal sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act, 1861 so that no criminal charges can be brought against women and girls who undergo abortion or against qualified health care professionals and all others who provide and assist in the abortion;

(b) Adopt legislation to provide for expanded grounds to legalise abortion at least in the following cases:

(i) Threat to the pregnant woman’s physical or mental health without conditionality of “long-term or permanent” effects;

(ii) Rape and incest; and

(iii) Severe foetal impairment, including FFA, without perpetuating stereotypes towards persons with disabilities and ensuring appropriate and ongoing support, social and financial, for women who decide to carry such pregnancies to term;

(c) Introduce, as an interim measure, a moratorium on the application of criminal laws concerning abortion, and cease all related arrests, investigations and criminal prosecutions, including of women seeking post-abortion care and healthcare professionals;

(d) Adopt evidence-based protocols for healthcare professionals on providing legal abortions particularly on the grounds of physical and mental health; and ensure continuous training on these protocols;

(e) Establish a mechanism to advance women’s rights, including through monitoring authorities’ compliance with international standards concerning access to sexual and reproductive health including access to safe abortions; and ensure enhanced coordination between this mechanism with the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission; and

(f) Strengthen existing data collection and sharing systems between the DHSSPS and the PSNI to address the phenomenon of self-induced abortions.”

In its response, the Government says that “The issue of abortion is a devolved matter and therefore a matter for the NI Assembly to legislate on”. The Government also notes that:

“… the Abortion Act 1967 has never extended to Northern Ireland and the Parliament there has decided not to adopt its provisions. The Northern Ireland devolution settlement gives legislative control over certain matters (known as ‘transferred matters’) to the NI Assembly. Issues on which the Northern Ireland Assembly has full legislative powers include health and social services (including for abortion law), equal opportunities and justice and policing (the latter was devolved in 2010)” [3 & 4].

In short, it appears that HMG is not going to budge on what it evidently regards as an issue of principle. Nevertheless, it points out that:

“6. Since the Committee conducted its inquiry, the UK Government announced on 29 June 2017 that women normally resident in Northern Ireland would no longer be charged for abortions received in England.

7. For many years, women have been travelling from Northern Ireland to England Wales and Scotland in order to access abortions. This has always been legal, but women have been charged for abortions, which has made it difficult for some women. The Government have now determined how this service will be delivered in England. The Scottish and Welsh governments are making similar arrangements.

8. Women from Northern Ireland will access the service through existing providers of abortions in England, in the same way that women in England do. The vast majority of abortions will be carried out by independent sector providers, although a small number of procedures will continue to be provided through the NHS where this is necessary for medical reasons.”

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "The UN, CEDAW and abortion law in Northern Ireland" in Law & Religion UK, 23 February 2018,

6 thoughts on “The UN, CEDAW and abortion law in Northern Ireland

    • Yes, I think you’re right – if they were simply to repeal it without enacting a more modern and appropriate restriction.

    • Criminal Law in Northern Ireland is a devolved function so if ss.58 & 59 were repealed in NI that would not repeal them for England & Wales: conversely if they were repealed in EW that would not repeal them in NI.

      • I took it to mean repeal by the UK Parliament – which could repeal ss.58 & 59 in respect of Northern Ireland as well, devolution notwithstanding. Obviously, the NI Assembly couldn’t repeal it in respect of England & Wales.

        [from the Devolution Memorandum of Understanding and Supplementary Agreements, October 2013:

        ’14. The United Kingdom Parliament retains authority to legislate on any issue, whether devolved or not. It is ultimately for Parliament to decide what use to make of that power. However, the UK Government will proceed in accordance with the convention that the UK Parliament would not normally legislate with regard to devolved matters except with the agreement of the devolved legislature. The devolved administrations will be responsible for seeking such agreement as may be required for this purpose on an approach from the UK Government.’]

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