The Northern Ireland Supreme Court has rejected a case brought by activists who were trying to have the abortion law there overturned.
The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) brought the case seeking a ruling that the ban on abortion on the grounds of life- limiting conditions and sexual assault contravened human rights law. While the Supreme Court agreed that the current legislation is “incompatible” with European human rights laws in the cases of life-limiting conditions, rape and incest, they nonetheless found that the Commission did not have sufficient legal standing to bring the case. As a result, they found that the court “has no jurisdiction” to strike down the law in question or even to make any binding declaration as to its incompatibility.
The case was an appeal from a previous court hearing in October 2017 and was based on a claim that the abortion law in Northern Ireland is incompatible with rights under the European Convention on Human Rights. But the claim was strongly contested in court and the argument made by Attorney General John Larkin QC has been accepted today.
Given today’s ruling, Northern Ireland will retain its current law which only allows for abortion in cases where a woman’s life is at risk or where there is a risk of permanent and serious harm to a woman’s mental or physical health.
The 1967 Abortion Act, which governs abortion law throughout the UK, has not been extended to Northern Ireland. Instead, the jurisdiction has been allowed to determine its own laws in the area despite pressure which has gradually been increasing from abortion activists to see the grounds for abortion widen in Northern Ireland. The result of the recent referendum in the South of Ireland has given some encouragement to abortion activists in this regard but they will face a huge battle in Northern Ireland where there is enormous political and grassroots support for the right to life of unborn babies.
The UK Government too, has resisted all calls to extend the 1967 Act. Just this week, a heated debate took place in Westminster on the issue. In a reassuring sign for pro-life activists, the Government continues to insist that the law in Northern Ireland must be decided by local politicians there.
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The decision has been welcomed by pro-life group Both Lives Matter who have pointed out that the Court decision means there is an acknowledgement that there is no human right to abortion and no legal requirement to change the law. They have also pointed out that 100,000 people are alive thanks to the fact that the Abortion Act 1967 was not extended to Northern Ireland. And, as with any moment when abortion hits the headlines, they have highlighted the need to now look at the reasons why women seek abortions, so that improved supports can be put in place. In that regard, the ruling represents both a challenge and opportunity – a challenge because it will no doubt spur abortion activists on to try and be successful at a later date, but a greater opportunity for pro-life activists to focus on how best the law can be protected and families supported in a way that does not end a baby’s life.