U.K. Court Ruling Leaves Northern Ireland Abortion Law Unchanged

Hugh Fox
June 10, 2018

Britain's Supreme Court will today rule whether Northern Ireland's strict abortion laws infringe European human rights legislation, potentially testing the strength of Prime Minister Theresa May's minority government.

But the UK's Supreme Court ruled it had no jurisdiction to consider the legal challenge because the case wasn't brought forward from a victim who was pregnant as a result of rape or who was carrying a fetus with a fatal abnormality.

A termination is now only permitted if there is a serious risk to a woman's life or her health.

The majority of judges ruled that the country's abortion law breaches Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), by not allowing abortions in cases of sexual crime (rape and incest) and fatal foetal abnormalities.

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. [It] makes clear there is nowhere left for the government to hide on this issue.

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Northern Ireland's elected assembly, which has powers to legislate on the issue, voted against liberalising the law in February 2016.

Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O'Neill meanwhile described the debate as a "first step" on the road to abortion reform in Northern Ireland, and backed repeal of the relevant sections of the 1861 act.

"All eyes are now on the UK Government".

"We took this case to bring greater clarity to the law and we welcome the court's decision", Les Allamby, chief commissioner of the NIHRC, said.

DUP leader Arlene Foster has said abortion is a devolved matter and should only be dealt with by Stormont, which is now suspended.

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In England, Scotland and Wales, an abortion can be legally carried out up to a 24-week gestational limit or later if the mother's health is threatened or there is a substantial risk the baby will have serious disabilities.

However, the fact that the Supreme Court dismissed the case because of doubts about the Human Rights Commission's right to bring it means the judges' views on the anti-abortion laws do not have legal force, which is reassuring for abortion foes.

"I personally have been doing this for five years, and five years is too long". They want MPs to attend the debate and stress that the democratic process in Northern Ireland be respected. Members from throughout the House - including government ministers - stood to back Labour MP Stella Creasy's call for a debate.

But the case for change has received fresh impetus from the Republic of Ireland's landmark referendum vote to legalise abortion last month.

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