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Northern Ireland law on abortion ruled as ‘incompatible with human rights’

2nd Dec 2015

A high court judge has ruled that Northern Ireland’s near-outright ban on abortion breaches the human rights of women and girls, including rape victims.

The historic judgment could lead to female victims of rape and incest, as well those suffering from fatal foetal abnormalities, having terminations in Northern Irish hospitals.

Under the Offences Against the Persons Act 1861, medical teams could be jailed for life for carrying out abortions. Unlike the rest of the UK, the Abortion Act 1967 has never applied to Northern Ireland; abortions are only allowed if the life of a mother is directly under threat or in cases in which there would be lasting long-term negative effects on her health by continuing with the pregnancy.

In his ruling and referring to cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality, Mr Justice Horner told the high court in Belfast: “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.”

Referring to political inaction at Stormont over the abortion question, Horner also suggested that a referendum might have to be held to enact his conclusions on reforming local abortion law as without one it was impossible to know how the majority of people in Northern Ireland viewed abortion.

Les Allamby, the head of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC), welcomed the judgment, saying that: “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.”

She continued to say that “We are pleased that today that the high court has held that the current law is incompatible with human rights and has ruled in the commission’s favour.” She then noted that “It was important for the commission to take this challenge in its own name, in order to protect women and girls in Northern Ireland and we are delighted with the result.”

At least 1,000 women and girls from Northern Ireland travel to hospitals in Britain for terminations every year. Official figures for 2013 suggest 800 Northern Irish females had abortions in Britain, although that number is regarded as an underestimate.

Amnesty International said it was shameful that laws on abortion “date back to the 19th century and carry the harshest criminal penalties in Europe”.