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Abortion ruling is merely a tiny step in right direction


Attorney General for Northern Ireland John Larkin

Attorney General for Northern Ireland John Larkin

Attorney General for Northern Ireland John Larkin

When you are dealing with a situation of monstrous injustice, as we are with the current laws on abortion in Northern Ireland, it's tempting to see even the smallest sign of progress as an incredible victory.

The High Court ruling that our legislation breaches human rights law was greeted with deep approval by those of us - and please remember, that includes the majority of people in Northern Ireland - who think it's wrong to force a woman to give birth to an infant with zero chance of survival or to carry a child conceived as the result of rape under threat of life imprisonment. But this ruling is no panacea. It's the tiniest of tiny steps forward. The reality is that nothing has changed.

The news that women's rights are being breached is no news at all. The UN Human Rights Committee has already expressed concern about "the highly restricted circumstances" in which abortion is legally permitted in Northern Ireland and has called for the legislation to be amended as "a matter of priority". What's more, the new ruling has no direct force in itself. It is subject to appeal, and must go through the Assembly before it could become law. And nobody could fail to be aware of Stormont's wilful and culpable inertia on this issue. So in practice, it's very much a case of as you were.

This is not to underplay the significance of Mr Justice Horner's conclusions. He affirmed that preventing a woman from accessing an abortion when the foetus cannot survive independently or when she has been a victim of sexual crime is a gross interference with her personal autonomy. He punctured the prevailing myth of moral purity by pointing out that: "If it is morally wrong to abort a foetus in Northern Ireland, it is just as wrong morally to abort the same foetus in England. It does not protect morals to export the problem to another jurisdiction and then turn a blind eye."

The judge's words also provide some legal reassurance to medical professionals, who have long been concerned - due to unwarranted political interference in medical decision-making - that they could be liable to prosecution for assisting people who find themselves in these dreadful circumstances.

Beyond that, the judgment is an important and explicit riposte to those who would seek to impose their strongly held religious or moral beliefs on others, with the support of criminal sanctions. This, I would say, includes many of our politicians and public figures.

That's why I was dismayed but not surprised to see the Attorney General for Northern Ireland John Larkin say that he was "profoundly disappointed" by the decision and "considering the grounds for appeal". In 2008, before he took up the role of Attorney General, Mr Larkin memorably described aborting a highly disabled foetus in the womb as akin to "putting a bullet in the back of the head of the child two days after it's born". Three years ago questions were raised over Mr Larkin's call for Stormont to investigate the legal status of the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast, with his personal assistance.

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Such eagerness to get involved does not seem compatible with the impartiality and dignity one expects of the guardian of the rule of law. The Attorney General is tasked with representing the public interest and ensuring that "all persons, institutions and entities, public and private, including the State itself, are accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated, and which are consistent with fundamental human rights". Does this wide-reaching responsibility not also include the rights of women who are pregnant as a result of sex crime or who are carrying a foetus that can't live? How is the public interest served by denying the likes of Sarah Ewart, the young woman whose baby was diagnosed with a fatal foetal abnormality, a termination?

Welcome as the High Court ruling is, it deals with only a fraction of cases and does nothing for those who find themselves faced with an unwanted pregnancy in less dramatic circumstances. If there is such excessive political opposition to changing the law to accommodate the most desperate and shocking and egregious of situations, then there is little hope for a more extensive overhaul of abortion legislation in the future.

Women's bodily autonomy, their fundamental right to choose whether to carry a child or not, will continue to be relegated to a poor second place behind the hyper-sanctified moral principles of our pious men of government. This is not a victory.

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