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UK’s highest court to rule on legality of Northern Ireland’s abortion law

Supreme Court justices will announce their decision on Thursday on a challenge by campaigners who say human rights are being breached.


Supreme Court (Fiona Hanson/PA)

Supreme Court (Fiona Hanson/PA)

Supreme Court (Fiona Hanson/PA)

The UK’s highest court is set to rule on a challenge over the legality of Northern Ireland’s strict abortion law.

Seven Supreme Court justices in London will announce their decision on Thursday, at a time of intense political debate on the issue.

The ruling by the panel of judges, headed by the court’s president Lady Hale, follows a hearing last year.

During proceedings in October, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) told the court 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 Supreme Court has been asked to rule that a prohibition on abortions where a pregnancy arises from rape or incest, or “involves a serious foetal abnormality”, is unlawful.


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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 Stormont Executive’s senior legal adviser, Attorney General John Larkin QC, said Northern Ireland’s 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.

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

The appeal judges said the law in Northern Ireland should be left to the Stormont Assembly and not judges, saying the complex moral and religious questions behind the issue should be determined by a legislature rather than a court.

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.

Grainne Teggart, Amnesty’s Northern Ireland campaigns manager, said in a statement: “If the court rules that Northern Ireland’s abortion ban breaches women’s rights, there will be no excuses left for Theresa May – the UK Government will be forced to fulfil its human rights responsibilities and make things equal for the women of Northern Ireland.

“The Supreme Court judges have a unique chance to put right centuries of human rights abuse in Northern Ireland. We hope they take it.”

The Democratic Unionists – the Government’s supply and confidence partners at Westminster – are staunchly anti-abortion and oppose moves to liberalise the regime in Northern Ireland.

Leader Arlene Foster denied her party was under pressure to change stance.

“The DUP is not under pressure on these issues,” she told UTV.

“We await to hear what the Supreme Court has to say on these issues and we will of course consider that and then the place to discuss this is the Assembly.”

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