Northern Ireland’s strict abortion laws are incompatible with the United Kingdom‘s human rights commitments, Belfast’s High Court ruled on Thursday, in the latest of a series of legal victories for abortion rights campaigners in the region.
British-ruled Northern Ireland has some of the tightest abortion restrictions in the world. Rape, incest or diagnoses of fatal fetal abnormality are not grounds for a legal abortion, only when a mother’s life is at risk can a procedure go ahead. A change in the law appears inevitable soon.
Thursday’s case was brought by a Belfast woman, Sarah Ewart, who travelled to Britain for an abortion after being told her baby would not survive outside the womb.
“I am massively relieved … Too many women in Northern Ireland have been put through unnecessary pain by our abortion law,” Ewart said in a statement.
Her fetus was diagnosed with a fatal abnormality; her brain was not properly developed and she would have died during pregnancy or soon after birth.
The woman was told she could not have a termination in Northern Ireland and was given no advice about where to find one.
The judge said: “She has had to modify her behaviour in that she could not have medical treatment in Northern Ireland due to the risk of criminal prosecution.”
Mrs Justice Siobhan Keegan said her testimony had been compelling.
She decided it was not right that another young woman would be required to pursue litigation and face the same “trauma and pain” in the future.
“I cannot see that this would serve any benefit or it would be right to ask another woman to re-live the trauma. In my view, her personal testimony is compelling.”
She has since had two children but wants to have more and fears a similar situation could happen again, the judge said: “She may be actively affected in the future. In my view, her personal testimony is not disputed.”
Pressure has mounted to ease Northern Ireland’s abortion rules after the neighbouring Irish Republic voted overwhelmingly last year to repeal a similarly restrictive ban. That referendum demonstrated a stark change in attitudes on an island once known for its religious conservatism.
Northern Ireland’s regional government – which has this week been charged with endorsing post-Brexit Irish border plans – has not functioned since a power-sharing agreement between mainly Protestant and Catholic political parties collapsed in 2017. The British parliament voted in July in favour of a plan that would decriminalise abortion in the region if its local government had not been re-established by October 21.
In the unlikely event that the change in the abortion law is not imposed by London, Thursday’s ruling means the Belfast court could take steps that would force legislators to act.
Abortion rights were long opposed in Northern Ireland by religious conservatives in both the Protestant community that supports continued British rule and the Catholic community that favours union with the Irish Republic.
But opinion has changed in recent years. In the Irish Republic, the Catholic Church’s influence has rapidly eroded because of shifting cultural norms and scandals involving mistreatment of children in orphanages and the Church’s role in sexual abuse.
The UK Supreme Court last year made a similar ruling that abortion law in Northern Ireland was incompatible with commitments under the European Convention on Human Rights, although it stopped short of compelling a change in the law because the case had not been brought by an identified victim.