Baroness Northover: no “blanket ban” on abortion for impregnated victims of war rape

Baroness Northover
Baroness Northover

It is not always that a response from a Government spokesperson in the House of Lords prompts a round of applause from the other side of the Atlantic. In fact, just occasionally it can go unheralded by some sides of the chamber itself. Not so last week, as International Development spokeswoman Baroness Northover responded to a debate brought forward in the House by a party colleague on medical care for women impregnated by rape in armed conflict.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill brought forward the debate to call on the Government to fulfil its obligations under the Geneva Conventions and ensure UK-funded medical care for women impregnated by rape in war was “non-discriminatory” and included abortion services where medically necessary. Two powerful forces perpetuated the anti-abortion medical protocols imposed on women raped in war, he said – the US Government and the International Red Cross. Both did not carry out “life and health-saving abortions in humanitarian settings, leaving them with the choice of risking an unsafe abortion, suicide or being forced to bear the child of their rapists”.

He told peers: “Our Government can and should fill the vacuum of global leadership on this issue by ensuring that DfID’s humanitarian aid advances, not undermines, the right of women raped in war to non-discriminatory medical care, which includes abortions.”

So he warmly welcomed the response by Baroness Northover. She said: “The denial of abortion in a situation that is life-threatening or causing unbearable suffering to a victim of armed conflict may… contravene Common Article 3 [of the Geneva Conventions].

“Therefore, an abortion may be offered despite being in breach of national law by parties to the conflict or humanitarian organisations providing medical care and assistance. Clearly, this service provision very much depends on the facts of each situation but I state clearly that it is our view that there is no blanket ban on such medical help when covered by international humanitarian law even if national laws might be at variance with that.”

The comments were described as “historic” by the New York-based Global Justice Center, who described it in a statement to US media as “a move that should have enormous global impact on health care given women in warzones”. Its president, Janet Benshoof, said: “We applaud the UK for its global leadership on calling an end to the unjust and illegal denial of abortions for women raped and tortured in armed conflict.”

Published and promoted by Tim Gordon on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, both at LDHQ, 8-10 Great George Street, London, SW1P 3AE.

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