Northern Ireland abortion law breaches human rights

A judicial reveiw hearing, held in June, has ruled the current legislation in Northern Ireland prohibiting abortion unless there is a clear risk to the mothers life or physical or mental health, has been ruled as being in breach of human rights law, it was announced today.

Anyone unlawfully carrying out an abortion in Northern Ireland can currently be sentenced to life in jail.

Abortion is legal in the rest of the UK under the 1967 Abortion Act, but the legislation does not extend to predominantly Roman Catholic Northern Ireland, leaving many women who want an abortion having to travel to mainland UK or risking dangerous ‘backstreet’ abortions. These are generally carried out by people without the appropriate medical training, in an unsafe or unhygienic environment, without appropriate follow up care.

Church position

Political parties in Northern Ireland predominantly oppose abortion, abiding by the Catholic Church’s position that abortion is a mortal sin, with life beginning at conception.

The ruling by Mr Justice Horner said that in cases of foetal abnormality, or where the women were victims of sexual crimes, an exemption from the law should be granted, allowing for a termination of pregnancy.

The Chief Commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, Les Allamby, said, following the judgement, “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 please 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 has six weeks to appeal the judgement and it is still not clear whether new legislation will be required to enforce the ruling.

Key facts

  • In 2012 there was widespread condemnation of Ireland abortion policy following the death of Savita Halappanavar who died after contracting maternal septicemia and ensuing organ failure during a miscarriage that she was denied an abortion for.
  • The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act was introduced following her death defining the circumstances in which an abortion may be granted in an attempt to prevent a repetition of these events
  • In some cases, women pregnant with severely deformed babies, have been forced to endure the trauma of continuing with a pregnancy with no hope of a live birth because of the stringent anti-abortion laws.
  • More than 1,000 women travel from Northern Ireland to have an abortion in other parts of the UK.
  • Abortion is still carried out in exceptionally rare cases in Northern Ireland, with 51 performed in 2014.