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Northern Ireland High Court delivers landmark judgement on abortion laws

Written by Comment

The High Court in Belfast recently ruled that Northern Ireland’s abortion law breaches the UK’s human rights commitments. The Northern Irish law is quite dissimilar to the ones followed in England, Wales and Scotland. The 1967 Abortion Act was never extended to cover the region despite covering the rest of the United Kingdom and liberalizing the act of abortion everywhere.

Currently, a termination of pregnancy is only permitted in Northern Ireland if the mother’s life is at risk or if there is a risk of permanent and serious damage to her mental or physical health. Rape, incest or diagnoses of fatal fetal abnormality are not valid legal grounds for abortion.

“The laws in Northern Ireland forced her to travel to England to have her abortion and ever since, she has championed the cause for a change in laws within the country”

The case in question was that of Sarah Ewart. In 2013, Mrs Ewart was told she could not have a legal abortion, despite doctors saying her fetus would not survive outside the womb. The laws in Northern Ireland forced her to travel to England to have her abortion and ever since, she has championed the cause for a change in laws within the country. An earlier attempt by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission was dismissed because of a technicality even though the majority of the judges of the Supreme Court agreed that the laws were incompatible with human rights laws. Mrs Ewart later agreed to take the case and sought a judicial review of Northern Ireland’s abortion laws.

In Northern Ireland, abortions are currently not permitted unless the mother’s life is at risk or if there is the risk of permanent and serious damage to her mental and physical health

This landmark case has been somewhat eclipsed by a separate intervention from Westminster MPs which could completely overhaul Northern Ireland’s abortion laws. MPs in London voted for British laws on abortion and same-sex marriage to extend to Northern Ireland if the region does not have its own devolved government by 21st October – something that does not seem to be happening. That could in turn, completely overhaul the region’s laws on abortion – bringing it in line with the rest of the UK.

Although not completely similar to Alabama and other states in the USA that were recently in the news, the nature of the existing laws in Northern Ireland, do invoke certain comparisons that are hard to dismiss. Personally, I have always believed that a woman should have control over her body and by extension, her pregnancy. Especially so in circumstances similar to Mrs Ewart where there is a danger to the baby during the perinatal period.

“I believe that a woman should get the right to decide whether she wants to continue the pregnancy because she is the only one who is privy to all the information regarding her health, the fetus’ health, her own financial and social situations, including the support systems that she has.”

She is the one who can decide properly if she can support the level of dependency that having a child brings with it and it would be unfair on the child as well as the mother to force her legally to support the child no matter the medical dangers, the circumstances that surrounded the pregnancy, rape for example, and other factors.

Whether by the action of Westminster or otherwise, the laws in Northern Ireland need to be changed and this case is a landmark step in that direction.

Last modified: 20th October 2019

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