NEWS
07/06/2018 09:49 BST | Updated 07/06/2018 17:06 BST

Campaigners Lose Appeal Over Northern Ireland Abortion Law Challenge

Current legislation is 'incompatible' with European human rights law.

Human rights campaigners have lost a Supreme Court appeal which attempted to overturn Northern Ireland’s strict abortion law.

A majority of judges said the existing law does violate European human rights laws in the cases of fatal foetal abnormality, rape and incest.

However, the justices said the Supreme Court “has no jurisdiction” to consider the legal challenge as the the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) who brought the case was not itself an actual victim or potential victim.

The result was celebrated by campaigners who said it had only lost on a technicality.

Humanists UK said in a tweet: “The supreme court ruled a) that Northern Ireland’s abortion ban breaches human rights law, but b) the NI Human Rights Commission didn’t have proper standing to bring the case. This is a win! If a woman brought the case tomorrow, the abortion ban would be over.”

Andrew Copson, chief executive of Humanists UK, who has also blogged on the subject for HuffPost UK, added in a tweet: “As interveners in the case, I read the judgment yesterday - all 241 pages. It didn’t even occur to me that this would be seen as anything other than a win  – which it is.”

In a statement released on Facebook, Labour MP Stella Creasy called on the government to act following the ruling.

She said: “Are they really going to force a rape victim to have to give evidence in court themselves before they act on this ruling? The house will back them in repealing this outdated legislation - now it is a test as to which women matter more to Theresa May? The victims of this cruel policy or Arlene Forster and the DUP?”

South Belfast MLA Claire Bailey also called on Westminster to act following the ruling, saying that the ruling showed human rights are not a devolved matter and the UK must redress this through legislation.

During proceedings in October, the NIHRC argued that the current law criminalises “exceptionally vulnerable” women and girls and subjects them to “inhuman and degrading” treatment.

During the three-day appeal 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 NIHRC claims the law’s effect on women is incompatible with rights under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

Contesting the appeal, the Northern Irish government’s senior legal adviser, Attorney General John Larkin QC, said the criminal law on abortion is 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.

On Thursday, Deputy Supreme Court president Lord Mance said the present law “clearly needs radical consideration”.

Giving his opinion, Lord Kerr praised three “enormously brave women” who gave “unsparing accounts” of having to deal with a pregnancy where they knew their babies were “doomed to die”.

He said: “No-one who heard those accounts could fail to be moved by the courage of those women.

“Nor could they fail to have profound sympathy with the terrible ordeal which they had to endure.

“As I have said in my judgment in this case, however, admiration and sympathy do not provide an answer to the complex questions which arose on this appeal.”

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 Northern Ireland Assembly voted in February 2016 against legalising abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality and rape or incest.

The debate on Northern Ireland’s restrictions on abortion has intensified after citizens in the Irish Republic voted by a landslide last month to liberalise the state’s laws.

An emergency debate on the issue was held in the House of Commons on Tuesday.

The UK Government has resisted calls to step in and legislate amid the ongoing powersharing impasse in Northern Ireland, insisting that any decision on abortion in the region has to be taken by locally elected politicians at Stormont.