The UK government has said it deleted references to abortion rights from an official statement on gender equality to be “inclusive of all perspectives and views”.
Liz Truss convened an international conference on freedom of religion and belief in London last month in her capacity as foreign secretary – but the meeting was overshadowed by a diplomatic row over reproductive rights.
Countries such as Denmark and Norway lodged formal protests after the UK used its position as chair to drop the references to “sexual and reproductive health and rights” and “bodily autonomy” from the summit’s conclusions.
More than 20 countries had signed the original text which included backing for the rights – but the statement was removed from the government’s website after the close of the summit and replaced with a new one which avoided the issue.
Ministers now say they changed the statement to be “constructive”, but the move has apparently backfired as just eight countries have put their names to the new version – including the UK, and Malta, where abortion is banned in all cases.
Critics said ministers’ justification for the reversal was “derisory” and suggested it was “a disturbing sign” that anti-abortion politics was crossing the Atlantic following the reversal of Roe vs Wade in the United States.
Last month, Conservative chair of the women and equalities select committee, Caroline Nokes, wrote to Ms Truss asking her to explain “this sudden backtracking on women’s rights”, while more than 20 human rights groups also called on her to reverse the decision.
Ms Truss is yet to publicly comment on the matter, but her deputy at the foreign office, Lord Ahmad, has responded to a written parliamentary question lodged by Green Party peer Natalie Bennett.
“In our capacity as chair of the event, we amended the statement we made at the Freedom of Religion or Belief Conference to make the final statement more inclusive of all perspectives and views, to allow for a constructive exchange of views on all issues,” the minister said.
“The UK continues to fund support and lead on issues of gender including on SRHR, through initiatives related to Women, Peace and Security, and Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict.”
Ms Truss’s deputy added: “The UK is committed to defending and promoting universal and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health and rights and will continue working with other countries to protect gender equality in international agreements.”
The row over the statement came at a sensitive time for abortion rights, just days after the US Supreme Court decided to overturn the Roe vs Wade judgement, paving the way for abortion bans in many US states.
Campaigners had welcomed the original text as a step forward in demonstration how gender equality and religious belief were compatible.
Baroness Bennett, who tabled the written parliamentary question eliciting the response, told The Independent that the government’s justification was “a derisory response to the covert erasure of crucial rights from the declaration”.
“I’d expect better of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, if not of Liz Truss,” she said. “At a time when abortion rights have come under sustained rightwing attack in the US, this is a disturbing sign that such views are crossing the Atlantic, as so many other disturbing political perspectives already have.
“Campaigners had seen this statement as a big step forward in demonstrating how the relationship between rights of freedom of religion and belief and gender equality are compatible, progress that the British government’s action has not only undone, but made the subject of increased controversy.”
She added: “That 22 states signed the original declaration, and only five the revised, is not only a sign of the damage done, but another blow to the UK’s international reputation. That has already suffered so much damage as a result of the behaviour of this government, which has been so careless of commonly accepted rules and protocols in international relations.”
In her opening speech at the conference in July, which was hosted at a conference centre in westminster, Ms Truss told delegates that “authoritarians and oppressors feel threatened by the freedom of religion or belief, fearing it will encourage people to think freely and question their authority”.
“We cannot allow them to win. That is why we’re deepening links with our allies and partners to build a Network of Liberty around the world. As St Paul told the Corinthians: ‘Be on guard, stand firm, be courageous, be strong’.”