Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland abortion campaigner set to take her battle to the High Court

By Mark Bain

The woman behind the campaign to have Northern Ireland's abortion laws changed said she will now take her fight to the High Court in Belfast.

Sarah Ewart will be seeking a formal declaration of incompatibility that the UK Supreme Court declined to grant yesterday.

The court ruled the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) had no legal standing to bring a challenge to the abortion law, saying it could only have been brought by a woman impacted by the abortion ban.

But while the decision means the Government is not obliged to change the law, the seven judges gave a strong indication that reform is needed.

Ms Ewart (28) had to travel to England for an abortion in 2013 when her 19-week scan showed her baby's brain and skull had not developed properly and the child would not survive.

She said she had "no regrets" after the Supreme Court ruling, adding: "If this same thing was to happen to me tomorrow, and the law wasn't changed, I would make the same decision. Now the highest court in the land has recognised that Northern Ireland is in breach of human rights for people who find themselves with fatal foetal abnormality.

"They have said that the law needs to be changed, so we will keep going until we get that change. The High Court in Belfast and the Supreme Court are in agreement, so let's just do this."

But Bernadette Smyth, director of anti-abortion campaign group Precious Life, said: "What happened here today was upholding democracy. This court made a ruling that this court has no right to make decisions for Northern Ireland. Regardless of their opinions, this is a law in Northern Ireland and that is where these decisions should be made."

A majority of a seven-strong panel of Supreme Court justices ruled against the NIHRC, saying the case could only have been brought by a woman impacted by the abortion ban.

But they said the law was incompatible with the right to respect for private and family life as guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights.

The judgment will add to the political pressure on the Government and politicians in Northern Ireland to deal with the issue.

DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said the NIHRC had questions to answer about the cost of taking the case and why "it decided to act beyond its competence in such a sensitive issue". He added: "We should all approach the matter of abortion with the seriousness and maturity that the discussion deserves." Dismissing calls for Prime Minister Theresa May to intervene, Sir Jeffrey added: "This is a devolved matter and any attempt to change the law without the consent of the Assembly would be a breach of the devolution settlement."

UUP leader Robin Swann urged the DUP to adopt a matter of conscience for members.

He said: "That's the view of the Ulster Unionist Party and a position other parties should extend to their membership, just as the SDLP has. I know of DUP members deeply uncomfortable with how they are being perceived and how this and other issues are being handled by their party."

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said: "As politicians we can no longer duck our responsibilities. It's my strong, personal view that it is completely unsustainable for us to have a different law from the south on abortion."

Sinn Fein vice-president Michelle O'Neill said it was clear that legislative change is needed.

"This judgment makes it clear that in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities, sexual crime and rape that the current law in the north remains incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights," she said.

Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley said: "No formal declaration has been made by the court and the appeal has been dismissed. But the analysis and comments from the court on the issue of incompatibility will be clearly heard by this House and politicians in Northern Ireland."

Key statistics in the debate

  • Almost 1,000 women from Northern Ireland travelled to England or Wales for an abortion in 2017, an increase on the year before.
  • In 2017, there were 4,809 abortions for women recorded as residing outside England and Wales, and most non-residents travelled from the Irish Republic (64%) and Northern Ireland (19%).
  • There were 919 abortions for women from Northern Ireland — an increase of over a quarter from 2016 and the highest level since 2011, according to Department of Health (DoH) statistics.
  • The number of NI residents having an abortion in England and Wales has generally declined since a peak of 1,855 in 1990.
  • The number of Republic of Ireland residents having an abortion in England and Wales has also been declining since 2001 when 6,673 women had the procedure.
  • In 2017, 3,092 women from the Republic of Ireland had an abortion in England and Wales, less than half the number than in 2001 and a further 5% decline from 2016.

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