Northern Ireland news

High Court rules Northern Ireland abortion law breaches human rights

This morning the High Court in Belfast ruled that abortion should be made available in cases of serious foetal malformation or sexual crime

THE north's strict abortion laws are in breach of the EU Convention on Human Rights, the High Court in Belfast has ruled.

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) had taken a case against the Department of Justice (DoJ) calling for termination of pregnancy to be legalised in cases of sexual crime or serious foetal malformation.

This morning the High Court ruled that abortion should be made available in these cases.

Judge Mr Justice Mark Horner told Belfast High Court: "In the circumstances, given this issue is unlikely to be grasped by the legislature in the foreseeable future, and the entitlement of citizens of Northern Ireland to have their Convention rights protected by the courts, I conclude that the Article Eight rights of women in Northern Ireland who are pregnant with fatal foetal abnormalities or who are pregnant as a result of sexual crime are breached by the impugned provisions."

The 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland where pregnancy terminations are banned except where the life or mental health of the mother is in danger.

Anyone who performs an illegal termination could be jailed for life.

Mr Justice Mark Horner heard the legal arguments from both sides at Belfast High Court over three days in July.

A DoJ public consultation paper on changing the law to allow abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality has been submitted to the Assembly but the NIHRC claims it does not go far enough.

The commission claims the current law, relating to access to termination of pregnancy services for women in cases of serious malformation of the foetus or pregnancy as a result of rape or incest, is incompatible with human rights legislation regarding inhuman and degrading treatment, privacy and discrimination.

Northern Ireland's Attorney General John Larkin, the chief legal adviser to the Stormont Assembly, was given special permission to address the court. He said there was no public appetite for a law change.

The court also took submissions from legal representatives for Sarah Ewart, a 24-year-old woman who went public with her experience of travelling to England for an abortion in 2013 after being told her child had a severe brain malformation and no chance of survival outside the womb.

There were also a number of pro life and pro choice groups and the Catholic clergy.

The NIHRC said legal proceedings had been launched as a last resort.

Judge Horner said without a referendum it was impossible to know how the majority of people viewed abortion and noted there was no political will to change the law.

In cases of fatal foetal abnormality (FFA), the judge concluded the mother's inability to access an abortion was a "gross interference with her personal autonomy".

He said: "In the case of an FFA there is no life to protect. When the foetus leaves the womb, it cannot survive independently. It is doomed. There is no life to protect.

"Therefore, even on a light touch review it can be said to a considerable degree of confidence that it is not proportionate to refuse to provide an exception to the criminal sanctions imposed on the impugned provisions."

The judge also claimed the current law placed a disproportionate burden on victims of sexual crime.

He said: "She has to face all the dangers and problems, emotional or otherwise, of carrying a foetus for which she bears no moral responsibility and is merely a receptacle to carry the child of a rapist and/or a person who has committed incest, or both.

"In doing so the law is enforcing prohibition of abortion against an innocent victim of a crime in a way which completely ignores the personal circumstances of the victim."

Amnesty International's Grainne Teggart said: “Today’s High Court decision is a hugely significant step towards ensuring the right to access abortion for women and girls in Northern Ireland who have been raped, are victims of incest or whose pregnancies have been given a fatal foetal diagnosis.

“Northern Ireland’s laws on abortion date back to the nineteenth century and carry the harshest criminal penalties in Europe.

“Today’s court decision is a damning indictment of the Northern Ireland Executive’s failure to prioritise women’s healthcare. It’s shameful that the Courts have had to step in because politicians have repeatedly failed Northern Ireland’s women."

The court also took submissions from legal representatives for Sarah Ewart, a 24-year-old woman who went public about travelling to England for an abortion in 2013 after being told her first child had a severe brain malformation and no chance of survival outside the womb.

Ms Ewart was not present in court but mother Jane Christie sat in the public gallery alongside Grainne Teggart, from Amnesty International, which was also a third party intervener.

Further submissions were admitted from A number of other pro life and pro choice groups including Precious Life and the Catholic clergy.

The lengthy judgment was read out to a packed courtroom over more than two hours.

Judge Horner urged members of the public to read it in its entirety.

"The judgment is for everyone to read, not just those with legal training," he said. "Please read the judgment in full and give it careful consideration before reaching a conclusion."

The NIHRC said legal proceedings had been launched as a last resort.

Speaking outside the court, Les Allamby, chief commissioner described the judgment as "historic".

He said: "We welcome today's landmark ruling.

"In taking this case we sought to change the law so that women and girls in Northern Ireland have the choice of accessing a termination of pregnancy locally in circumstances of fatal foetal abnormalities, rape or incest, without being criminalised for doing so.

"Today's result is historic, and will be welcomed by many of the vulnerable women and girls who have been faced with these situations.

"We are delighted with the result."

However, prominent pro life campaigner Bernadette Smyth expressed disappointment at the result.

She said: "We do not recognise the negative points which were made by the judge today.

"We must protect the rights of the unborn child."

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