Top court rejects Northern Ireland abortion law case

Abortion law clashes with human rights; challenge rejected on technical grounds

Published: June 07, 2018 16:59:49 | Updated: June 08, 2018 17:29:38

Human rights campaigners held banners at the Supreme Court in London on Thursday morning. Photo: PA

Human rights campaigners have lost a Supreme Court appeal over the legality of Northern Ireland's abortion law.

The court dismissed an appeal brought by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC).

But a majority of judges said the existing law was incompatible with human rights law in cases of fatal foetal abnormality and sexual crime.

Unlike other parts of the UK, the 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland.

Currently, a termination is only permitted in Northern Ireland if a woman's life is at risk or if there is a risk of permanent and serious damage to her mental or physical health.

'Inhuman' treatment?

The commission lost on the issue of whether they had the required standing to bring the case.

The commission's defeat came because of a technical legal point, analysts suggest.

The ruling comes just weeks after the Republic of Ireland voted decisively in a referendum to reform the country's strict abortion laws, which had effectively banned all terminations.

The referendum reignited a debate about Northern Ireland's law, with some calling for reform while others - including the biggest party, the Democratic Unionist Party - remain opposed to changing the law.

The NICHR had argued that the current law subjects women to "inhuman and degrading" treatment, causing "physical and mental torture," in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

However, on Thursday, Supreme Court judges said it would have required the case to have been brought by a woman who was pregnant as a result of sexual crime or who was carrying a foetus with a fatal abnormality.

A fatal foetal abnormality diagnosis means doctors believe an unborn child has a terminal condition and will die in the womb or shortly after birth, although anti-abortion campaigners have argued that terminally-ill babies "can and do defy the odds".

As a result, the judges did not make a formal declaration of incompatibility, which would normally lead to a change in the law.

Any change in the law will now be up to the politicians, either in Belfast or Westminster.

Northern Ireland has been without an executive since January 2017, when the governing parties - the DUP and Sinn Féin - split in a bitter row over a flawed green energy scheme.

Prime Minister Theresa May has previously said that a government in Northern Ireland should deal with the issue, reports BBC.

Lord Justice Kerr said that, by a majority of five to two: "The court has expressed the clear view that the law of Northern Ireland on abortion is incompatible with article 8 of the Convention in relation to cases of fatal foetal abnormality and by a majority of four to three that it is also incompatible with that article in cases of rape and incest".

He added that while this was not a binding decision, "it must nevertheless be worthy of close consideration by those" who decide the law.

The case is the latest in a long line of legal challenges to Northern Ireland's abortion law.

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