Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland abortion law should be left to Stormont Assembly, say judges

An appeal court has ruled abortion law in Northern Ireland should be left to the Stormont Assembly and not judges.

It said the complex moral and religious questions behind the issue were not for balanced and impartial judges to decide.

A lower court had ruled that abortion legislation breached the European Convention on Human Rights by barring the procedure when a foetus has a fatal abnormality or is conceived through rape or incest. That has now been overturned.

Lord Justice John Gillen said: "Abortion is a classic instance of the type of highly controversial issue touching on social, moral and religious policies on which there is no consensus either in Europe or, for that matter, in this jurisdiction.

"Such an issue requires Parliament to be allowed a wide margin of judgment."

Unlike other parts of the UK, the 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland, where abortions are illegal except where the life or mental health of the mother is in danger.

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

Thursday's ruling was delivered by three of Northern Ireland's most senior judges.

The court said the case should now go to the Supreme Court.

Northern Ireland Assembly members last year voted against legalising abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality.

A fatal foetal abnormality means doctors believe an unborn child has a terminal condition and will die in the womb or shortly after birth.

The Assembly has been in deep freeze for most of this year as talks to restore powersharing continue.

Lord Justice Gillen said: "It is a matter of extraordinary complexity and moral entanglement on which views have shifted over the decades.

"Into this arena the court should fear to tread and ought to adopt an approach of balanced impartiality and well-judged caution if the appropriate constitutional balance is to be preserved."

He added: "I consider that a fair balance has been struck by the law as it presently stands until the legislature decides otherwise."

The Human Rights Commission, an independent body established following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, argued that the current law's effect on women is incompatible with the respect for privacy clause of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Stormont Executive's legal adviser claimed the commission did not have power to bring the case and had failed to identify an unlawful act.

Following the judgment, Bernie Smyth, director of the pro-life Precious Life lobby group, greeted cheering supporters outside court in Belfast city centre.

She said: "This has been a great victory here, a victory for democracy, a victory for the right to life.

"We have a statement that states very clearly that the right to life is granted neither by judges nor politicians but it is their duty to protect it."

Les Allamby, chief commissioner at the Human Rights Commission, said he drew comfort after judges said ministers needed to address the issue.

In 2013, Sarah Ewart travelled to England for a termination after doctors said her unborn child could not survive.

She said Stormont politicians needed to get together to help women who find themselves in similar situations.

"I am devastated at today's court ruling," she said.

Grainne Teggart, a campaigner at Amnesty International in Belfast, said: "Today's court ruling is an utter betrayal of women in Northern Ireland who find themselves in these tragic circumstances."

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