Northern Ireland news

Supreme Court to rule on north's strict abortion law

The Supreme Court in London is set to rule on the north's strict abortion laws
Cathy Gordon, Press Association

The UK's highest court rules next week on a challenge over the legality of Northern Ireland's strict abortion law.

Seven Supreme Court justices in London will announce their decision on the controversial issue on Thursday June 7.

The ruling by the panel of judges, headed by the court's president Lady Hale, follows a hearing last year.

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) told the court in October that the current law criminalises "exceptionally vulnerable" women and girls and subjects them to "inhuman and degrading" treatment.

During the three-day hearing, a QC representing the commission argued that human rights were being breached, with those affected being forced to go through "physical and mental torture".

The Supreme Court has been asked to rule that a prohibition on abortions where a pregnancy arises from rape or incest, or "involves a serious foetal abnormality", is unlawful.

The NIHRC claims the current law's effect on women is incompatible with rights under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

But, contesting the appeal, the Stormont Executive's senior legal adviser, Attorney General John Larkin QC, said Northern Ireland's criminal law on abortion was a matter for the "democratic judgment" of the legislature.

The legislature, he said, "has struck the proportionate balance required for the protection of the rights of women and unborn children".

Unlike other parts of the UK, the 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland.

Abortion is illegal except where a woman's life is at risk or there is a permanent or serious danger to her mental or physical health.

Anyone who unlawfully carries out an abortion could be jailed for life.

Belfast's High Court made a declaration in December 2015 that the law was incompatible with Article 8 of the ECHR - the right to respect for private and family life - because of the absence of exceptions to the general prohibition on abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities and pregnancies resulting from sexual offences.

But that decision was overturned in June last year by three of Northern Ireland's most senior judges.

The appeal judges said the law in Northern Ireland should be left to the Stormont assembly and not judges, saying that the complex moral and religious questions behind the issue should be determined by a legislature rather than a court.

Submissions were also made at the Supreme Court by a number of bodies, including seven of the UK's leading reproductive rights organisations, Humanists UK, Bishops of the Roman Catholic Dioceses in Northern Ireland, the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children and Amnesty International.

The assembly voted in February 2016 against legalising abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality and rape or incest.

The abortion issue has recently hit the headlines again with an overwhelming referendum vote in favour of legal abortion in the Republic.

British prime minister Theresa May has since faced cross-party calls to deliver similar rights to women north of the border.

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