Over 20 human rights, pro-choice, and international aid groups, and the Norwegian and Danish Governments, have called on the UK Government's Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to reverse its decision to arbitrarily strip ‘sexual and reproductive health and rights’ and ‘bodily autonomy’ from an international human rights statement.
Humanists UK has expressed “serious alarm” at changes made to a multinational statement from the UK government’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.
The “freedom of religion or belief and gender equality” statement was issued as part of the July 5-6 International Ministerial Conference. The intention was to bring international governments, parliamentarians, faith and belief representatives, and civil society together to increase global action on freedom of religion or belief for all.
The statement initially committed to abolishing discriminatory laws that “restrict women’s and girls’ full and equal enjoyment of all human rights, including sexual and reproductive health and rights, bodily autonomy” on the grounds of religion, belief or gender. It also said it would “support and build capacities of local religious and belief leaders to… ensure access to sexual and reproductive health and rights.”
The statement has since been revised to remove references to “sexual and reproductive health and rights” and “bodily autonomy” and has moved from “abolish[ing]” to “challeng[ing]” laws that discriminate on the grounds of religion, belief or gender. This amendment essentially means that there is no government commitment to protect women's sexual and reproductive rights, health, or bodily autonomy. The consequence of this could be religious discrimination and the use of religious beliefs to justify discriminatory laws and practices that deny women enjoyment of their sexual and reproductive health rights, according to Humanists UK.
While it is unclear why the changes were made, Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson said the organization is “obviously concerned it may be due to some hostility to abortion.”
“The removal of support for conscientious freedom concerning one’s own body is only the latest in frequent attempts by some to use freedom of belief as a weapon rather than a shield,” said Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson. “They want to use their religious belief to infringe the rights of others – but that is not what the human right to freedom of religion or belief means.”
When asked, an FCDO spokesperson told Voice Magazine the department “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 (SRHR) and will continue working with other countries to protect gender equality in international agreements.”
A total of 23 countries signed the joint statement before it was amended, and now there are only six signatory countries. The other 18 have departed and are presumably being asked to sign up to the new wording.
The only country to sign the revised version and not the original is Malta, where there is an absolute ban on abortion in all circumstances, including rape, incest, and fatal fetal abnormalities.
Humanists UK is asking the UK Government for a full explanation and, if possible, a reversal.
“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,” said Professor Ahmed Shaheed, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief.
“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.”
No co-signatories have been added to the statement since it was last updated on July 7. This story is ongoing, and updates to the statement can be found here.