Belfast Telegraph

Human Rights Commission to take Stormont justice department to the High Court over Northern Ireland abortion law

NIHRC is seeking a change in the law so women and girls have the choice of accessing a termination of pregnancy in circumstances of serious malformation of the foetus, rape or incest.

By Amanda Ferguson

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission is to take the Department of Justice to the High Court over our abortion law.

The DOJ, headed up by Alliance Party leader David Ford, has been advised by NIHRC that it intends to issue legal proceedings in the High Court in connection with access to a termination of pregnancy in circumstances of serious malformation of the foetus, rape or incest.

A statement from NIHRC said: "Since April 2013 we have repeatedly advised the Department of Justice that the existing law is, in the Commission’s view, a violation of human rights.

"The Commission is seeking a change in the law so that women and girls in Northern Ireland have the choice of accessing a termination of pregnancy in circumstances of serious malformation of the foetus, rape or incest.

"Termination of pregnancy is currently available in Northern Ireland if it is necessary to preserve the life of a woman where there is a risk of a serious and adverse effect on her physical or mental health."

NIHRC says the recent consultation on the matter published by the DOJ does not commit to making the changes that are necessary.

"It deals with cases of lethal foetal abnormality while only seeking public opinion on cases of sexual crime including rape and incest," the statement continued.

"The issues raised by this challenge are of public interest and the Commission recognises the sensitivities of this case.

"Given the vulnerability of women and girls in these situations, the Commission considers it appropriate to use its powers and bring this legal challenge in its own name.

"It also reiterates the human rights obligation of the Northern Ireland Executive to provide adequate services to care for and support women and girls who choose to continue with a crisis pregnancy."

The DOJ described the legal action as "ill-timed and unnecessary" but the Family Planning Association welcomed the decision by NIHRC to challenge abortion law.

FPA’s Northern Ireland director, Dr Audrey Simpson, said: “This represents another step forward in securing women’s reproductive rights in Northern Ireland.

“The Department of Justice has suggested that this is an unnecessary step as a public consultation on abortion is already being carried out. However, the consultation focuses only on the issue of fatal fetal abnormality and is ‘seeking public opinion’ on pregnancies as a result of rape and incest.

“Even if public opinion came back strongly in favour of a change in law on these, we all know it would take years for any change to be effected.

“It has been 10 years since the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety was ordered by the High Court to issue guidance on the provision of abortion services in Northern Ireland, and this has still not been published.

“Every day women in Northern Ireland are subject to prejudice based purely on where they live, with much more restrictive legislation than women face in the rest of the UK. It is time for this inequality to end.”

Anti-abortion group Precious Life, headed up by Bernie Smyth, said it would fight the legal challenge "to ensure that the rights of the unborn child will be protected in law, policy and practice in Northern Ireland".

background

In taking the decision to launch legal proceedings against the Department of Justice the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission says it has considered the full range of internationally accepted human rights standards, including the European Convention on Human Rights as incorporated by the Human Rights Act 1998 and the treaty obligations of the Council of Europe and the United Nations systems.

It says this issue directly engages Articles 3, 8 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights:

Article 3: Freedom from torture and inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment.

Prohibits torture, and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. There are no exceptions or limitations on this right.

Article 8: Right to privacy

(1) Everyone has the right for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.

(2) There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

Article 14: Discrimination

The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this convention shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status.

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