Northern Ireland Abortion Law Breaches Human Rights, High Court Rules

Northern Ireland's abortion law breaches the European Convention in Human Rights, a judge has ruled in a "historic" decision.

The province's strict abortion laws only allow terminations where the life or mental health of the mother is in danger, meaning even cases of incest, rape or foetal abnormality do not clarify.

High Court judge Mr Justice Mark Horner ruled on Monday this law breached the ECHR.

The case had been brought by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC), which claimed the existing law was incompatible with human rights legislation regarding inhuman and degrading treatment, privacy and discrimination.

Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK where the 1967 Abortion Act, which liberalised access to terminations, does not apply.

The court ruled Northern Ireland's abortion law breached the European Convention on Human Rights

The NIHRC said the judge’s ruling could lead to women being allowed abortions in Northern Ireland in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities and where the pregnancy arose from a sexual crime.

Women who seek abortions usually travel to have them in England, where they have to pay because they are not residents there.

Sarah Ewart, 24, who had to travel 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. said: "I hope this means that I, and other women like me, will no longer have to go through the pain I experienced, of having to travel to England, away from the care of the doctors and midwife who knew me, to access the healthcare I needed.”

“I, and many women like me have been failed by our politicians. First, they left me with no option but to go to England for medical care. Then, by their refusal to change the law, they left me with no option but to go to the courts on my and other women's behalf."

She added: “I am an ordinary woman who suffered a very personal family tragedy, which the law in Northern Ireland turned into a living nightmare.”

Mr Justice Horner, who heard the legal arguments from both sides at Belfast High Court over three days in July, said: "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."

Les Allamby, NIHRC's chief commissioner, said: “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.

“We are pleased that today that the high court has held that the current law is incompatible with human rights and has ruled in the Commission’s favour.

He added: “Today’s result is historic, and will be welcomed by many of the vulnerable women and girls who have been faced with these situations.

"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.”

Amnesty International's Grainne Teggart said the ruling a was "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," she said.

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."

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

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