Norway, Denmark, and human rights groups challenge UK over abortion deletion

Over 20 human rights, pro-choice, and international aid groups, and the Norwegian and Danish Governments, have called on the UK Government to reverse its decision to arbitrarily strip ‘sexual and reproductive health and rights’ and ‘bodily autonomy’ from an international human rights statement it – and 22 other countries – signed only two weeks ago.

The ‘Statement on freedom of religion or belief and gender equality’ was issued by the UK as part of the International Ministerial Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief conference it hosted in London on 5-6 July.

However, the agreed statement, published on the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office website, was inexplicably amended without consultation; removing any references to ‘sexual and reproductive health and rights’ and ‘bodily autonomy’.

Now the Norwegian and Danish Governments have criticised the move. The Norwegian Government has told the Guardian:

‘Norway and Denmark have approached the UK and the Netherlands, who are the chair and co-chair respectively of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance (IRFBA), to enquire about and protest against the substantive changes to the statement and the way the changes were made. Norway has yet to make a decision on being a signatory to the amended version of the statement.’

Furthermore, an array of influential charities and rights groups have signed a joint letter asking the UK Government to explain its reasoning behind the shock move and to reverse its decision immediately. The letter was organised by Humanists UK, which first spotted the change. Signatories include Amnesty International UK, Human Rights Watch, ActionAid UK, BPAS, MSI Reproductive Choices, Liberty, Fawcett, Brook, the End Violence Against Women Coalition, Article 19, and Maternity Action.

They write to the Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss:

‘We are writing to you with serious concern about the deletion of references to ‘sexual and reproductive health and rights’ and ‘bodily autonomy’ from the UK-organised ‘Statement on freedom of religion or belief and gender equality’. We urge you to reverse this move, and hope you could explain why the change happened in the first place.

‘As Professor Ahmed Shaheed, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, has said in response to the changes: “Claims that freedom of religion or belief can be invoked to deny women and girls the exercise and enjoyment of their sexual and reproductive health rights have no foundation in human rights. Rather, such claims must be rejected as representing intolerant and patriarchal attitudes that deny the equal rights of men and women to freedom of religion or belief. Such claims especially ignore that freedom of religion or belief also guarantees to women the right to bodily autonomy and conscientious choice.”

‘At a time when abortion provision around the world is under serious threat, due to the reversal of Roe v Wade, it has never been more important for the UK Government to stand up for sexual and reproductive health and rights and bodily autonomy. We note that the latest British Social Attitudes Survey to ask indicates that less than 5% of the UK population oppose access to abortion in all circumstances. In addition, 22 countries had signed up to the statement before revision – a similar number to those signing the other Ministerial statements – which is further indication that there is no sound reason for these amendments. We urge that they be reversed immediately.’

Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of Humanists UK said:

‘The Government must surely be aware that, given the recent events in the United States, abortion rights are under threat. To amend an agreed statement in such a manner, omitting these rights, is therefore particularly poorly timed, never mind about being regrettable anyway.

‘Unfortunately, this supplanting of individual freedom under the guise of “religious freedom” is an example of the right to freedom of religion or belief being abused in order to infringe the rights of others.

‘The Government must withdraw these amendments.’

Marie Juul Petersen, Senior Researcher at the Danish Institute for Human Rights, helped draft the original statement. She has told the Guardian that the revised text was ‘a big surprise’ and called the amendment process ‘flawed and unreasonable’. She added:

‘I saw the original statement as such a big step forward because this has been a very conflict-ridden area – the relationship between freedom of religion and belief and gender equality. For so many years, there have not been many attempts at finding synergies and overlaps or at demonstrating how these two sets of rights are actually compatible and in fact intertwined and inseparable. And I thought this statement was really a big step forward in that direction, showing that these two rights are not in opposition to one another but can actually reinforce one another. So I was really disappointed.’

A total of 22 countries signed the Statement before it was amended. The revised Statement has seen that number reduce to five of the original signatories, plus one new addition – anti-abortion Malta.

The stated intention of the London 2022 International Ministerial Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief was bringing international governments, parliamentarians, faith and belief representatives, and civil society together to increase global action on freedom of religion or belief for all.

Speakers included Humanists UK’s Chief Executive Andrew Copson, in his capacity as President of Humanists International, who spoke at the opening session alongside the Foreign Secretary, Archbishop of Canterbury, Chief Rabbi, and global Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh leaders.