Northern Ireland abortion law breaches human rights, high court rules

Northern Ireland’s current abortion rules contravene UK human rights law, the High Court in Belfast ruled on Thursday.

The case was heard by Justice Keegan after Sarah Ewart challenged the law having been denied an abortion in Northern Ireland in 2013, even though doctors had said her unborn child would not survive outside the womb. Instead, she traveled to London to end her pregnancy.

The judge said the prospect that another woman would have to face the same “trauma and pain” should be avoided in future.

She said: “I cannot see that this would serve any benefit or it would be right to ask another woman to relive the trauma.”

Ewart said in a statement via her lawyers: “Today’s ruling is a turning point for women in their campaign against the outdated laws prohibiting against abortion in Northern Ireland.

“It should never have had to come to this. Today’s ruling is a vindication of all those women who have fought tirelessly to ensure that we never again have to go through what I did in 2013.”

What is Northern Ireland’s abortion law?

Abortion law in Northern Ireland is considerably different from legislation in the rest of the United Kingdom.

At present, an abortion is only legal in Northern Ireland if a woman’s life is at risk, or if there’s a risk of serious damage to her physical or mental health.

Rape and incest are not grounds for abortions, and terminations are also not currently permitted in cases where doctors believe the baby will die before or shortly after birth.

This is likely to change in just over two weeks because of a decision made in Westminster before Thursday’s ruling. The new legislation aims to decriminalize abortion in Northern Ireland, and will pass if there is no deal to restore devolution in Northern Ireland by October 21.

Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland campaign manager, Grainne Teggart, said: “This groundbreaking ruling is a huge win for abortion rights in Northern Ireland. The court has spoken — the law is a clear violation of rights.

“Thursday’s ruling shows just how urgently change is needed so this healthcare can be accessed without having to travel.”

The judge said she had followed a previous ruling at the Supreme Court that abortion law in Northern Ireland was incompatible with Article 8 of the European convention on human rights.

Justice Keegan said: “Sarah Ewart has been affected by the current law in that she has had to travel to seek an abortion in desperate circumstances.

“In addition, she runs the risk of being directly affected again by the current legal impositions given that she is at risk of a baby having a fatal foetal abnormality.

“She has had to modify her behavior in that she could not have medical treatment in Northern Ireland due to the risk of criminal prosecution.”

The judge will hear further submissions before deciding what action to take.