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The Government is being urged to explain its quiet removal of commitments to abortion and sexual rights from an international pact, which activists warn will risk undoing progress made in recent years.
Ministers’ silence on the amendments to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) statement “sets a dangerous precedent for global commitments to be rolled back”, said Bekky Ashmore, chair of the UK Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) Network.
It comes after i reported that the FCDO had struck out commitments to repeal discriminatory laws that threaten women and girls’ “sexual and reproductive health and rights” and “bodily autonomy” from a statement that had already been published on its website for about a week.
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The original statement coincided with the London 2022 International Ministerial Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) – hosted by the UK Government on 5 and 6 July – and had been signed by 22 countries.
The latest version of the FCDO statement has just eight signatories, including Malta, which has strict anti-abortion laws.
Language about discriminatory laws was also watered down after the initial publication, with the Government later saying they should be challenged rather than repealed.
The FCDO said the amendments were in response to a perceived ambiguity in the wording of the statement, but did not elaborate.
Ms Ashmore, said: “We remain deeply concerned about the changes made to this statement, and stand with countries like Denmark and Norway who are demanding answers.
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Whoever stripped 'sexual and reproductive health and rights' from the statement specified the change as 'minor', which is usually reserved for typosi reported last week that commitments to women’s reproductive and sexual health rights had been quietly removed from a statement published on the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) website.
“Particularly in the current global context, with the reversal of Roe v Wade causing huge anxiety for women and girls around the world, we need to see solid commitments to abortion and sexual and reproductive health and rights from our leaders in the UK.”
Ms Ashmore is also Plan International UK’s SRHR policy and advocacy adviser. Plan International UK has written to Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary and Conservative Party leadership candidate, to seek answers about the amendments to the statement.
Ms Ashmore said the UK had historically been a champion for sexual and reproductive health and rights globally, “so it is shocking that the Government has allowed this to happen with no explanation.
“[The Government’s] continued silence sets a dangerous precedent for global commitments to be rolled back – on this occasion almost immediately after being published – with no good reason and no accountability.”
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Equality Now, a human rights organisation that advocates for women and girls, said the Government’s actions were “an alarming cause for concern” at a time when women’s rights are under attack across the world.
Its global lead on ending sexual violence, Jacqui Hunt, called on the UK Government to clearly “stand in support of the right of women and girls to bodily autonomy and comprehensive sexual and reproductive healthcare”.
Ms Hunt told i: “This latest move by the UK Government is counter to positive advances in reproductive rights in the country in recent years.
“Northern Ireland decriminalised abortion in 2019, early medical abortion at home has been made more readily available, and there are moves to create buffer zones around abortion clinics to prevent women from being subjected to intimidation and harassment.”
Andrea Simon, director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, said: “With our right to abortion under attack globally, it’s vital that women’s right to access this fundamental healthcare is clearly underlined by Government.
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“However what we’ve seen is the opposite: the Government has removed references to sexual and reproductive health and rights and to bodily autonomy from a statement on gender equality on the FCDO website.
“This is a hugely concerning move, and set alongside the Government’s plans to scrap the Human Rights Act, which we have long relied on to hold the state to account for failures to uphold women’s rights, it is a dangerous course.”
Campaigners from countries that had signed the initial statement are calling on their governments to withhold support from the new version.
“I certainly hope that Denmark will not sign the new statement,” said Marie Juul Petersen, a senior researcher at the Danish Institute for Human Rights.
“I think that would be a very problematic sign to send, especially coming from Denmark – a country which has traditionally been very focused on promoting and protecting sexual and reproductive health rights.”
In addition to Plan International UK’s letter, more than 20 human rights, pro-choice and international aid groups have co-signed a letter to Ms Truss, urging the FCDO to reverse the amendments and to explain why they were made in the first place.
The FCDO said: “We amended the statement we made at the International Ministerial Conference to address a perceived ambiguity in the wording.
“The UK remains committed to defending universal access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health rights, and will continue working with other countries to protect gender equality in international agreements.”
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