Senior Tory urges Liz Truss to explain deletion of abortion rights from statement

Exclusive: Equalities committee chair Caroline Nokes joins international outcry after UK dilutes commitment to women’s rights without consultation

A senior Conservative MP has asked the foreign secretary, Liz Truss, to explain why the UK government appeared to perform a “sudden backtracking on women’s rights” after commitments to abortion and sexual health rights were removed from an official multi-nation statement on gender equality.

Caroline Nokes, who chairs the women and equalities select committee, has written to Truss, who is also the minister for women and equalities and a Tory leadership contender, asking why the key phrases relating to reproductive rights were deleted.

More than 20 countries had signed the original statement that resulted from a UK-hosted conference on freedom of religion and belief earlier this month. That version included a commitment to repeal laws that “allow harmful practices, or restrict women’s and girls’ … sexual and reproductive health and rights, bodily autonomy”.

But those phrases were removed from a later version of the international pact, which is currently online and has been signed by eight countries, including the UK and Malta, where abortion is illegal. Malta had not been one of the original signatories.

“One of the most important freedoms a woman can have is the right to control her own reproductive health. It is very unclear as to why the sections on sexual and reproductive health were withdrawn at such a late stage and apparently with no consultation or discussion,” Nokes, the MP for Romsey and Southampton North, said in a statement to the Guardian.

“Across the globe, the reverberations of Roe v Wade have worried women and girls, and I would have thought the UK would wish to be at the forefront of defending their rights.

“I have written to Liz Truss as foreign secretary and minister for women and equalities asking her to explain this sudden backtracking on women’s rights. Surely the religious freedoms being espoused must also include the freedom to have a right to an abortion?”

Fiona Bruce, the prime minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief at the international ministerial conference earlier this month.
Fiona Bruce, the prime minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief at the international ministerial conference earlier this month. Photograph: Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office

Truss, who is engaged in an acrimonious battle with former chancellor Rishi Sunak to succeed Boris Johnson as prime minister, gave the opening speech at the international ministerial conference on freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) held in London in early July. The prime minister’s special envoy on FoRB, the Conservative MP Fiona Bruce, was heavily involved in the gathering. Bruce is co-chair of the all-party parliamentary “pro-life” group of MPs.

The changes to the statement on gender equality have caused friction with a number of other countries. Denmark and Norway have protested against the “the substantive changes to the statement and the way the changes were made”, and Canada is “seeking clarification” on what happened.

Human rights and pro-choice groups have expressed outrage, with more than 20 organisations writing to Truss to demand the government reverse the deletions immediately and explain why they were made.

On Wednesday, Andrew Copson, chief executive of Humanists UK, said: “We welcome Caroline’s call for the UK government to provide a full and frank explanation of why these changes were made – and for the original text to be reinstated. The government has said these amendments were to resolve a ‘perceived ambiguity’ but support for the human right of women to freedom of belief and bodily autonomy is in no way ambiguous. On the contrary, they are values that should be unambiguously supported, as they were in the original inter-government agreement.”

The FCDO previously said that it amended the statement “to address a perceived ambiguity in the wording”, without giving further details.

On Wednesday a spokesperson said the amendments had been made “to focus on the core issues and ensure consensus between signatories.”

“The UK is 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,” the spokesperson said.

“In our capacity as chair of the event, we amended the statement we made at the FoRB conference to focus on the core issues and ensure consensus between signatories.”


Lizzy Davies

The GuardianTramp

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