Northern Ireland's abortion laws 'breach human rights'


Northern Ireland's near blanket ban on abortion breaches human rights legislation, a High Court judge has said.

The landmark judgment delivered to Belfast High Court, could pave the way for a relaxation of the region's strict laws which prohibit women accessing terminations in cases of rape, incest or where there is a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality.

The high profile case was brought by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC).

Mr Justice Mark Horner 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."

Unlike other parts of the UK, the 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland where abortions are illegal except in very limited circumstances where the life or mental health of the mother is in danger.

Anyone who performs an illegal termination could be jailed for life.

Legal argument from both sides was heard over three days in June.

Delivering his judgment over more than two hours, Judge Horner said the failure to provide exceptions to the law in certain circumstances breached a woman's right to privacy.

In cases of fatal foetal abnormality (FFA), he concluded that the mother's inability to access an abortion was a "gross interference with her personal autonomy".

The judge said: "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."

Judge Horner also told the court the current law placed a disproportionate burden on victims of sexual crime.

"She has to face all the dangers and problems, emotional or otherwise, of carrying a foetus for which she bears no moral responsibility and is merely a receptacle to carry the child of a rapist and/or a person who has committed incest, or both.

"In doing so the law is enforcing prohibition of abortion against an innocent victim of a crime in a way which completely ignores the personal circumstances of the victim," he said.

The case was taken against Northern Ireland's Department of Justice (DoJ) which, following a public consultation, had recommended a law change in circumstances of fatal foetal abnormality.

However, the NIHRC said the DoJ had not gone far enough and argued the current law was incompatible with human rights legislation regarding inhuman and degrading treatment, privacy and discrimination.

Without a referendum, the judge said it was impossible to know how the majority of people viewed abortion.

But, he noted there was no political appetite for change.

"The unavoidable inference from the inaction of the Department of Justice (DoJ) to date and the comments of the First Minister is that the prospect of any consultative paper, never mind legislative action on pregnancies which are the consequence of sexual crime, is even more gloomy," said Judge Horner.

The region's Attorney General John Larkin, the chief legal adviser to the Stormont Assembly, was given special permission to address the court. He said there was no public appetite for a law change and argued that it would take away the rights of disabled unborn children.

Submissions were also made on behalf of Sarah Ewart, a 24-year-old who went public about travelling to England for an abortion in 2013 after being told her first child had a severe brain malformation and no chance of survival outside the womb.

Ms Ewart was not present in court but her mother Jane Christie sat in the public gallery alongside Grainne Teggart, from Amnesty International, which was also a third party intervener.

Further submissions were admitted from other pro life and pro choice groups including Precious Life, the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child and the Catholic clergy.

Judge Horner appealed for members of the public to read his judgment in its entirety.

"The judgment is for everyone to read, not just those with legal training," he said. "Please read the judgment in full and give it careful consideration before reaching a conclusion."

The NIHRC said legal proceedings had been launched as a last resort.

Speaking outside the court, Les Allamby, chief commissioner described the ruling as "historic".

He said: "We welcome today's landmark ruling. I think it is a good day for human rights and in particular a vindication of the Commission's right to take the case.

"We only embarked on legal challenge when we couldn't solve this in any other way.

"I think it means, hopefully in the near future, that cases like Sarah Ewart will be able to get access to a service locally, free of charge and that is a really important step forward."

However, prominent pro life campaigner Bernadette Smyth expressed disappointment at the result.

She said: "We have to look at these very rare cases and provide better support for women. Killing a child in all circumstances is wrong."