Human rights campaigners lose UK Supreme Court appeal over legality of NI's abortion law


Human rights campaigners have lost a UK Supreme Court appeal over the legality of Northern Ireland’s strict abortion law.

But a majority of the seven-strong panel of justices in London expressed the “clear opinion” that the current legislation is “incompatible” with European human rights laws in the cases of fatal foetal abnormality, rape and incest.

The justices said the court “has no jurisdiction” in the proceedings to make a declaration of incompatibility or to strike down law.

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) had argued that the current law criminalises “exceptionally vulnerable” women and girls and subjects them to “inhuman and degrading” treatment.

During a hearing last year it asked the Supreme Court to rule that a prohibition on abortions where a pregnancy arises from rape or incest, or “involves a serious foetal abnormality”, is unlawful.

Seven Supreme Court justices in London announced their decision this morning, at a time of intense political debate on the issue. The ruling by the panel of judges follows a hearing last year.

During proceedings in October, the NIHRC told the court the current law criminalises “exceptionally vulnerable” women and girls and subjects them to “inhuman and degrading” treatment.

During the three-day appeal hearing, a QC representing the commission argued that human rights were being breached, with those affected being forced to go through “physical and mental torture”.

The Supreme Court was asked to rule that a prohibition on abortions where a pregnancy arises from rape or incest, or “involves a serious foetal abnormality”, is unlawful.

The NIHRC claimed the law’s effect on women is incompatible with rights under the European Convention on Human Rights.

Contesting the appeal, the Stormont Executive’s senior legal adviser, Attorney General John Larkin QC, said Northern Ireland’s criminal law on abortion is a matter for the “democratic judgment” of the legislature.

The legislature, he said, “has struck the proportionate balance required for the protection of the rights of women and unborn children”.

Abortion is illegal in Northern Ireland except where a woman’s life is at risk or there is a permanent or serious danger to her mental or physical health.

Anyone who unlawfully carries out an abortion could be jailed for life.

Belfast’s High Court made a declaration in December 2015 that the law was incompatible with Article 8 of the ECHR – the right to respect for private and family life – because of the absence of exceptions to the general prohibition on abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities and pregnancies resulting from sexual offences.

That decision was overturned in June last year by three of Northern Ireland’s most senior judges.

The appeal judges said the law in Northern Ireland should be left to the Stormont Assembly and not judges, saying the complex moral and religious questions behind the issue should be determined by a legislature rather than a court.

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 Catholic Dioceses in Northern Ireland, the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children and Amnesty International.

The Northern Ireland Assembly voted in February 2016 against legalising abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality and rape or incest.

The debate on Northern Ireland’s restrictions on abortion has intensified after Ireland’s landslide vote in favour of repealing the Eighth Amendment, paving the way for the legalisation of abortion in certain circumstances.

An emergency debate on the issue was held in the House of Commons on Tuesday.

The UK Government has resisted calls to step in and legislate amid the ongoing power-sharing impasse in Northern Ireland, insisting that any decision on abortion in the region has to be taken by locally elected politicians at Stormont.



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