Last month, the UK quietly removed a pledge to protect abortion and sexual health rights from a multi-nation statement on gender equality, sparking a diplomatic row
When the US struck down Roe v Wade in June, fear rippled across the Atlantic with women in the UK wondering if their right to abortion could be stripped away too. Google searches for ‘abortion rights uk’ shot up on June 25, the day after Roe was overturned, while MP Nadia Whittome tweeted that we must “be vigilant” to ensure a woman’s right to choose is protected in the UK.
Disturbingly, it already looks as though these fears were warranted. In July, the UK quietly removed a commitment to protecting abortion and sexual health rights from a multi-nation statement on gender equality.
22 countries had signed the original statement, which was produced during the international ministerial conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief held in the UK last month. The original version included a commitment to repeal laws that “allow harmful practices, or restrict women’s and girls’ […] sexual and reproductive health and rights, bodily autonomy”, but this was subsequently removed.
Initially, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office said the statement was cut to to clear up “a perceived ambiguity”, but later clarified it was removed in order to focus on “core issues and ensure consensus between signatories”. The original version of the statement had been signed by 22 countries, but the latest version has been signed by just eight – including Malta, where abortion is currently illegal.
The decision has already triggered widespread outrage. Norway, Denmark, and the Netherlands are now all refusing to sign the amended pact, and over 20 human rights, pro-choice, and international aid groups are also calling on the UK government to commit to protecting abortion and sexual health rights in the statement.
Preet Kaur Gill, Labour’s shadow international development secretary, criticised the government’s decision to remove the promise from the statement, calling it “yet another attack on humanitarian rights from a government whose global reputation has already been tarnished”.
Ed Brown, secretary-general of the Stefanus Alliance International, a human rights organisation based in Oslo, was also critical of the decision. “For me the procedural issue – where the statement is removed after 22 countries have signed it – that for me is a big, big issue and for me undermines the trust that’s been built between nation states on this,” he said. “That’s my major gripe.”
While the law remains unchanged, the misguided decision sets a worrying precedent and raises urgent questions about the UK government’s commitment to defending women’s rights.
Now, ministers have finally responded to the backlash, and claim they changed the statement to be more “inclusive”.
As of August 9, Liz Truss – who convened the conference – is yet to comment publicly on the decision. But her deputy at the foreign office, Lord Ahmad, has now spoken out in response to a written parliamentary question lodged by Green Party peer Natalie Bennett.
“In our capacity as chair of the event, we amended the statement we made at the Freedom of Religion or Belief Conference to make the final statement more inclusive of all perspectives and views, to allow for a constructive exchange of views on all issues,” he said.
“The UK is committed to defending and promoting universal and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health and rights and will continue working with other countries to protect gender equality in international agreements,” he added.
Story was updated on August 9 to include Lord Ahmad’s statement