Northern Ireland abortion law breaches UK human rights law

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Northern Ireland’s abortion law breaches the UK’s human rights commitments, the High Court ruled.

The case was taken in Belfast by Sarah Ewart, who challenged the law after she was denied a termination.

The judge said she ruled in Mrs Ewart’s favour as it was not right to ask another woman to relive the trauma that she had already experienced.

Mrs Ewart said the ruling was “a turning point for women” in their campaign against “outdated laws”.

The judge said a formal declaration of incompatibility would not be made at this stage.

Mrs Justice Keegan made that decision in light of impending legislation, already passed at Westminster, which will decriminalise abortion if there is no deal to restore devolution in Northern Ireland b 21 October.

Members of the anti abortion campaign group Precious Life protested outside the court during the hearing.

“It’s a very sad day that the court has denied the right to life for unborn children,” said director Bernie Smyth.

Rules

Northern Ireland’s abortion legislation is very different from the law in Great Britain.

The 1967 Abortion Act, which liberalised the rules in England, Scotland and Wales, was never extended to Northern Ireland.

Currently, a termination is only permitted in Northern Ireland if a woman’s life is at risk or if there is a risk of permanent and serious damage to her mental or physical health.

Rape, incest or diagnoses of fatal foetal abnormality – where medics believe that a baby will die before, during or shortly after birth – are not grounds for a legal abortion in Northern Ireland.

Court

Mrs Ewart took the High Court case in her own name, after a Supreme Court appeal, led by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, failed last year.

A majority of Supreme Court judges had agreed Northern Ireland’s existing legislation was incompatible with human rights law in cases of fatal foetal abnormality and sexual crime.

However, the judges dismissed the commission’s case on a technicality, ruling that the organisation did not have the legal standing to bring such a challenge.

The judges said the case would have had more merit had it been brought by a woman pregnant as a result of sexual crime or carrying a fetus with a fatal abnormality.

Mrs Ewart later agreed to lead the challenge based on her own experience and sought a judicial review of Northern Ireland’s abortion laws.

“Sarah should not have had to take this case in the first place – in 2018, the Supreme Court ruled clearly that Northern Ireland laws ran contrary to human rights standards,” said Les Allamby, from the commission.

“Parliament should have changed the law then without delay.”

Olusola Akintonde