Court rules Northern Ireland abortion law 'breaches human rights'

The challenge was brought by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission

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The Independent Online

A court has ruled that the abortion legislation in Northern Ireland is in breach of human rights.

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) brought the challenge to make terminations in cases of rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality legal.

Delivering the landmark legal ruling on Monday at Belfast High Court, Judge Mr Justice Mark said: "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."

The judge said that refusing mothers an abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality (FFA) was a "gross interference with her personal autonomy".

"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," said the judge.

Addressing the court, Northern Ireland's Attorney General John Larkin said there was no public appetite for a law change. He reportedly argued it would breach the rights of disabled unborn children.

But the NIHRC's chief commissioner, Les Allamby, welcomed the "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."

"We are pleased that today the High Court has held that the current law is incompatible with human rights and has ruled in the Commission’s favour."

The Department of Justice had recommended a law change in cases involving fatal foetal abnormality after a public consultation. But the NIHRC launched the legal proceedings as a last resort because consultation paper had not gone far enough.

The 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland. Abortions are banned except for cases in which the life or the mental health of the mother is in danger. 

Additional reporting by PA