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Abortion legislation in Northern Ireland 'breaches human rights laws' - reaction to landmark ruling

Sarah Ewart

A High Court ruling that abortion law in Northern Ireland breaches the human rights of pregnant woman has been welcomed by Amnesty International.

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) had sought to legalise abortion in cases of serious foetal malformation, rape and incest.

Legal argument from both sides was heard over three days in June.

Among those who made submissions to the hearing at Belfast High Court in June were Sarah Ewart, who went public about having to travel to London to access termination services in 2013 after her first baby was diagnosed with anencephaly, a severe brain malformation.

Court ruling in full: Abortion law in Northern Ireland breaches human rights of women in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities or from a sex crime

Judge Mr Justice Mark Horner told Belfast High Court: "In the circumstances, given this issue is unlikely to be grasped by the legislature in the foreseeable future, and the entitlement of citizens of Northern Ireland to have their Convention rights protected by the courts, I conclude that the Article Eight rights of women in Northern Ireland who are pregnant with fatal foetal abnormalities or who are pregnant as a result of sexual crime are breached by the impugned provisions."

Welcoming the decision Sarah said: “I hope that today’s ruling means that I, and other women like me, will no longer have to go through the pain I experienced, of having to travel to England, away from the care of the doctors and midwife who knew me, to access the healthcare I needed.

“I, and many women like me have been failed by our politicians. First, they left me with no option but to go to England for medical care. Then, by their refusal to change the law, they left me with no option but to go to the courts on my and other women's behalf.

“I am an ordinary woman who suffered a very personal family tragedy, which the law in Northern Ireland turned into a living nightmare.”

However, Pro-life campaigner Bernadette Smyth expressed disappointment at the result.

She said: "We do not recognise the negative points which were made by the judge today.


Sarah Ewart (left) Bernie Smyth (right)

Sarah Ewart (left) Bernie Smyth (right)

Sarah Ewart (left) Bernie Smyth (right)

"We must protect the rights of the unborn child."

She told the BBC: "This is an undemocratic decision today - it will clearly see, long term, the opening of the floodgates."

Campaign Manager for Amnesty’s My Body My Rights campaign Grainne Teggart,  said: “Today’s High Court decision is a hugely significant step towards ensuring the right to access abortion for women and girls in Northern Ireland who have been raped, are victims of incest or whose pregnancies have been given a fatal foetal diagnosis.

“Northern Ireland’s laws on abortion date back to the nineteenth century and carry the harshest criminal penalties in Europe.

“Today’s court decision is a damning indictment of the Northern Ireland Executive’s failure to prioritise women’s healthcare. It’s shameful that the Courts have had to step in because politicians have repeatedly failed Northern Ireland’s women.

“Northern Ireland’s abortion laws must be brought into the twenty-first century and into line with international law as a matter of urgency.”

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

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

The high-profile judicial review was heard over three days in July.

Without a referendum, Judge Horner said it was impossible to know how the majority of people viewed abortion.

Judge Horner concluded that in cases of fatal foetal abnormality (FFA), the mother's inability to access an abortion was a "gross interference with her personal autonomy".

He said: "In the case of an FFA there is no life to protect. When the foetus leaves the womb, it cannot survive independently. It is doomed. There is no life to protect.

"Therefore, even on a light touch review it can be said to a considerable degree of confidence that it is not proportionate to refuse to provide an exception to the criminal sanctions imposed on the impugned provisions."

The judge also claimed the current law placed a disproportionate burden on victims of sexual crime.

He said: "She has to face all the dangers and problems, emotional or otherwise, of carrying a foetus for which she bears no moral responsibility and is merely a receptacle to carry the child of a rapist and/or a person who has committed incest, or both.

"In doing so the law is enforcing prohibition of abortion against an innocent victim of a crime in a way which completely ignores the personal circumstances of the victim."

Northern Ireland's Attorney General John Larkin, the chief legal adviser to the Stormont Assembly, was given special permission to address the court. He said there was no public appetite for a law change and argued that it would take away the rights of disabled unborn children.

Further submissions were admitted from other pro life and pro choice groups including Precious Life and the Catholic clergy.

The NIHRC said legal proceedings had been launched as a last resort.

Speaking outside the court, Les Allamby, chief commissioner described the judgment as "historic".

He said: "We welcome today's landmark ruling.

"In taking this case we sought to change the law so that women and girls in Northern Ireland have the choice of accessing a termination of pregnancy locally in circumstances of fatal foetal abnormalities, rape or incest, without being criminalised for doing so.

"Today's result is historic, and will be welcomed by many of the vulnerable women and girls who have been faced with these situations.

"We are delighted with the result."

Belfast Telegraph