The UK Government is under pressure to explain why it deleted key pledges on women’s sexual and reproductive rights from a policy document produced by a human rights conference it chaired earlier this month.
Pro-choice campaigners and other countries have expressed dismay at changes made to the text of the document after the event had finished.
The story was picked up on the social media platform, TikTok. One user — whose video on the topic has been viewed over 1 million times and has nearly 200k likes — wrote that “quiet movements” like the changes to the document are how “attacks on reproductive rights” begin in the UK.
Ferret Fact Service explains what the changes made to the document were, the UK Government’s reasons for making them, what the reaction has been, and whether they have impacted women’s access to abortion services in the UK or abroad.
What were the changes?
First held by the US in 2018, the conference on FoRB aims to bring together faith leaders, activists and government ministers from 36 member countries to “urge increased global action on freedom of religion or belief for everyone”.
The conference on FoRB was hosted by the Foreign Office on behalf of the UK in London on July 5 and 6 and featured an opening speech by the foreign secretary, Liz Truss.
The UK Government’s special envoy at the conference — who was heavily involved at the event — was the Tory MP, Fiona Bruce. She is also the co-chair of Westminster’s all-parliamentary group of “pro-life” MPs.
National governments who were at the conference were encouraged to sign up to seven different statements on issues which overlap with religion and belief.
One of these was a statement about “protecting and promoting freedom of religion or belief… in the context of gender equality, including for women and girls worldwide”.
In the original statement on gender equality, signatories committed to repealing laws that “allow harmful practices, or restrict women’s and girl’s full and equal enjoyment of all human rights, including sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), [and] bodily autonomy”.
Countries also pledged to “support and build the capacities of local religious and belief leaders to… ensure access to sexual and reproductive health and rights”.
However, in the amended version — issued in the aftermath of the conference — all mention of SRHR and bodily autonomy are left out.
Why was the document altered?
The Foreign Office told The Ferret that it altered the gender equality statement to “address a perceived ambiguity in the wording”.
It added: “The UK remains committed to defending universal access to comprehensive Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR), and will continue working with other countries to protect gender equality in international agreements.”
When asked, the department declined to say whether it discussed the changes to the document with other countries before they were made, what the “perceived ambiguity” was, or who considered the wording of the document to be unclear.
The Foreign Office has since said that the changes were made to focus on “core issues and ensure consensus between signatories”.
What has the reaction been?
The original gender equality statement was signed by 22 countries including the Netherlands, Norway and Japan. The number of signatories has now decreased to eight — including the UK — since the changes to the document were made.
Just one new country has signed the document since it was altered. This was Malta, where there is an absolute ban on abortion in all circumstances, including in cases of rape, incest and where the foetus has a fatal abnormality.
The governments of Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands are refusing to sign the edited version and have reportedly drawn up a third version — with different phrasing — and sent this to all the countries present at the FoRB conference.
The UN has also expressed concern. The body’s representative on FoRB said that “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”.
A host of campaigners have written to Liz Truss demanding an explanation for the amendments and requesting a meeting to discuss the UK’s “commitment to gender and freedom of religion or belief”.
Truss has also been asked to explain the move by Caroline Nokes, a Conservative colleague and chair of the equalities committee. Nokes said it was “very unclear” why the final text produced by conference had seen a “sudden backtracking on women’s rights”.
Do the changes impact the UK’s position on abortion?
The FoRB conference has no formal decision-making powers, and there has been no change to the law on abortion in the UK despite the changes made to the document.
Since 1967, abortion has been legal in Scotland, England and Wales, provided it is approved by two doctors who agree that having the baby would pose a greater risk to the physical or mental health of the woman than a termination.
It is possible to have an abortion up to 23 weeks and six days of pregnancy. There is no time limit for an abortion if there is evidence of fatal foetal abnormality or there is risk to the mother’s life if the pregnancy is continued.
Northern Ireland decriminalised abortion for the first time in 2019. Abortion in Northern Ireland is now legal unconditionally up to 12 weeks, after which the law is much the same as the rest of the UK.
However, the alterations to the FoRB document do call into question the UK Government’s commitment to defending sexual and reproductive health for women around the world.
The Foreign Office claims it has a “long history of evidence-based international leadership to defend and advance gender equality”. It committed to “boldly defend, progress, and champion” universal sexual health and reproductive rights for women across the world as recently as December 2021.
It is unclear how the government’s signing of the revised version of the document aligns with this commitment, given that Liz Truss has described the conference on FoRB as a “key part of the UK’s foreign policy and development agenda”.