A High Court judge has today ruled that Northern Ireland’s ban on abortion constitutes a breach of human rights. Belfast High Court Judge Justice Horner has said that the province cannot justify its continued ban, which refuses terminations in all circumstances unless a woman’s life is in danger, proclaiming it “incompatible with human rights law”.
The Court has recommended that exemptions to the ban be allowed for women who have conceived as a result of rape or incest, as well as women carrying foetuses with such severe abnormalities or disabilities that they will not survive outside the womb.
As it stands, the most recent legislation on abortion relating to the province is the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, passed under Queen Victoria. Unlike the rest of the UK, Northern Ireland was exempt from the 1967 Abortion Act which legalised terminations for women in England, Scotland and Wales.
At least 1,000 women travel from Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK to have abortions every year. The judge ruled that it was inconsistent for Northern Irish women to be denied abortions locally but for the law to permit the same women to travel to access services. He said: “If it is morally wrong to abort a foetus in Northern Ireland, it is just as wrong morally to abort the same foetus in England. It does not protect morals to export the problem to another jurisdiction and then turn a blind eye.”
Rather, Justice Horner said that forcing women to go abroad caused women to suffer undue emotional distress and financial hardship, without in any way reducing the number of pregnancies or abortions undertaken by local women: “There is no evidence before this Court, and the Court has in no way attempted to restrict the evidence adduced by any party, that the law in Northern Ireland has resulted in any reduction in the number of abortions obtained by Northern Irish women. Undoubtedly, it will have placed these women who had to have their abortions in England under greater stress, both financial and emotional, by forcing them to have the termination carried out away from home.”
He noted that travelling abroad was only realistically an option for wealthy women as the entire process can cost up to £2,000, whilst the poorest women were forced to continue pregnancies: “That smacks of one law for the rich and one law for the poor.”
Finally regarding victims of sexual crimes such as rape and incest, the judge ruled: “She [a victim] has to face all the dangers and problems, emotional or otherwise, of carrying a foetus for which she bears no moral responsibility and is merely a receptacle to carry the child of a rapist and/or a person who has committed incest, or both… The law makes no attempt to balance the rights of the women that are involved.”
The pronouncement has shocked many in Northern Ireland, where religious communities remain strong. Undoubtedly there will be backlash amongst churches and anti-abortion campaign groups. Attorney General John Larkin is outspoken in his opposition to abortion and has previously described the procedure as akin to shooting a baby. Speaking this morning in response to the ruling, he said he was “profoundly disappointed” and is considering appealing the decision.
A spokesperson for Amnesty International, who have backed the court case, said that the campaign group are awaiting clarification as to whether new legislation would need to be passed by Stormont to incorporate today’s ruling, or if the ruling alone will be enough to legalise terminations for rape victims, incest victims and severe disability. Stormont remains vehemently opposed to abortion on demand, with Sinn Fein stating that abortion in some circumstances is acceptable. If today’s High Court ruling alone is not enough to affect local laws, it is highly unlikely that Stormont will act on the decision.
Yet, the High Court’s clear message today cannot be ignored. When Stormont most likely refuses to enact it over the coming months, then the House of Commons might find themselves with an ethical obligation to intervene. Westminster has long refused to get involved in the debate, citing the principle of devolution that Northern Ireland gets to have the ultimate say over its own laws. However, as of today, human rights abuses are officially being committed against British citizens through the Northern Irish abortion ban, which would make for a legally compelling case for Westminster intervention.