Northern Ireland’s abortion law

Following Justice Horner’s ruling that the current abortion legislation in Northern Ireland breaches the European Convention on Human Rights, agendaNi reviews the fallout from the verdict.

On the 30th of November last year, Mr Justice Horner held that abortion legislation in Northern Ireland breached Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) by failing to provide an exception that allowed for abortions in cases of fatal foetal abnormality (at any time during the pregnancy) or where the pregnancy is the result of a sexual crime. In December he issued a “declaration of incompatibility” that placed the onus on Stormont politicians to change the law, although it does not legally oblige them to do so.

However, Mr Justice Horner did rule that allowing abortions for victims of sexual crimes and cases of fatal foetal abnormality under the present law would be a step too far.

In the rest of the United Kingdom, the 1967 Abortion Act has allowed terminations at any point up to the pregnancy’s 24th week for a variety of reasons including having abnormalities that could lead to a child being seriously handicapped. In Northern Ireland, abortion is only allowed in circumstances where the mother’s life is put at risk or her long-term physical or mental health is in danger.

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) brought forward the legal challenge to legalise abortion in cases of rape, incest, and in cases that the baby would be born with a fatal condition.

Explaining the basis for the decision Justice Horner said he felt the issue was “unlikely to be grasped by the legislature in the foreseeable future” and as such, he saw no option but to rule on this “impugned provision.”

Following the initial ruling, NIHRC’s Chief Commissioner, Les Allamby welcomed the decision claiming it will offer protection for many women throughout Northern Ireland. “Today’s result is historic, and will be welcomed by many of the vulnerable women and girls who have been faced with these situations,” he said. “It was important for the commission to take this challenge in its own name, in order to protect women and girls in Northern Ireland and we are delighted with the result.”

The decision has also been welcomed by the Royal College of Midwives with its Director for Northern Ireland, Breedagh Hughes claiming the decision will only help her fellow midwives. “The failure by the Northern Ireland Assembly to resolve this issue and legislate on it, or even to provide guidance as to how the law should be applied in clinical practice, has left midwives and other health care professionals in a very difficult position for a very long time,” she said.

“We do not campaign on changing the laws in Northern Ireland, that is for others to do, but we do support women’s rights to access a service that is freely available elsewhere in the UK.”

Northern Ireland’s Attorney General John Larkin, claimed he was “profoundly disappointed” by the courts ruling and “was considering ground for appeal.” Similarly, anti-abortion campaigner Bernadette Smyth of Precious Life branded the decision “undemocratic.”

The Department of Justice has six weeks to decide whether to appeal the judgement. Reflecting on the ruling, Justice Minister David Ford said it would require careful consideration and appeared to greet it positively. “I note that one of the conclusions reached by the court of appeals aligns with my policy proposal to amend the law to provide for abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality,” he said

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