Belfast Telegraph

Strict abortion law 'criminalises exceptionally vulnerable women and girls'

Northern Ireland's strict abortion law criminalises "exceptionally vulnerable" women and girls and subjects them to "inhuman and degrading" treatment, the UK's highest court has heard.

A QC told a panel of Supreme Court justices in London on Tuesday that human rights were being breached, with those affected being forced to go through "physical and mental torture".

Nathalie Lieven, who represents the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC), is asking the court to rule that a prohibition on abortions where a pregnancy arises from rape or incest, or "involves a serious foetal abnormality", is unlawful.

At the start of a three-day hearing, Ms Lieven argued that the existing criminal law on termination of pregnancy in Northern Ireland discriminates against women and girls on the grounds of sex, and also amounted to an "unjustified" breach of their personal right to autonomy.

Ms Lieven told Supreme Court president Lady Hale, deputy president Lord Mance and five other justices that v ictims of serious sexual crime who have to carry a pregnancy to term were being forced to live with the consequences of that crime for the rest of their lives.

The QC said: "In the case of pregnancies involving a serious foetal abnormality, they are carrying a foetus with a serious, and often fatal, abnormality to term, knowing that it may not survive at all, or for long - or that if it does survive it will be left with serious disabilities.

"In the case of a fatal foetal abnormality, they must carry to term a foetus that, by definition, cannot survive independently and may, by the time of delivery, be dead."

She argued: "The potential to travel elsewhere in the UK for an abortion cannot be treated as a 'get out clause' for the law in Northern Ireland."

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.

The commission argues that the current law's effect on women is incompatible with rights under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

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.

But that decision was overturned in June this year by three of Northern Ireland's most senior judges.

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

The Stormont Executive's senior legal adviser, Attorney General John Larkin QC, with the Justice Department, argue that the commission does not have legal power to bring the case and that it has failed to identify an unlawful act.

Submissions will be made to 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, and the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children.

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