Northern Ireland's abortion law 'incompatible with human rights', says Supreme Court
But the court dismissed an appeal to change the law
The UK’s Supreme Court has described Northern Ireland’s abortion law as ‘incompatible with human rights’ even as it dismissed an appeal on Thursday to change the law.
Pressure to change Northern Ireland’s near-ban on abortion has been mounting since the Republic of Ireland voted to repeal its own ban at the end of May.
Northern Ireland was exempt from the 1967 Abortion Act, which paved the way for legalised abortion in the rest of the UK. Abortion is only permitted in Northern Ireland if a pregnancy puts the mother’s life in danger or in cases of permanent or serious damage to the woman’s mental or physical health.
Human rights campaigners had brought the case to the Supreme Court hoping that it would make a formal declaration of incompatibility with UK law, which would lead to a change.
However, the Supreme Court said the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) did not have the required standing to bring the case.
As a result of this technical legal point, the decision to change the law must be taken by politicians.
However, in his explanation of the court’s view, deputy Supreme Court president Lord Mance said the law on abortion in Northern Ireland “clearly needs radical consideration”.
Justices agreed that in the cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality, the present law was incompatible with article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Abortion rights in Northern Ireland have the potential to become a political headache for UK prime minister Theresa May.
Mrs May has previously said the issue must be dealt with by the devolved government in Belfast, not by politicians in Westminster. However, power-sharing between the two main parties the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein broke down in January 2017, leaving Northern Ireland without an executive.
Mrs May is unlikely to supersede Stormont (the seat of the Northern Ireland executive) because her own minority government is being supported by the staunchly anti-abortion DUP.
But the debate has become more complicated in recent days as members of the prime minister’s own Conservative party have begun to call for action over the issue.
Frontbench ministers including Northern Ireland secretary Karen Bradley, women and equalities minister Penny Mordaunt and environment secretary Michael Gove all gave their support for a debate on the matter in Westminster on Tuesday. While Conservative parliamentarian Anna Soubry challenged the DUP’s Sammy Wilson during the debate when he voiced his support for the current abortion legislation in Northern Ireland.
Stella Creasy, a vocal campaigner for liberalising abortion laws from opposition party Labour, said the Supreme Court had challenged the “disregard for the human rights of women in Northern Ireland”.
But the Supreme Court’s decision to dismiss the appeal by the NIHRC was welcomed pro-life campaigners.
Bernadette Smyth, director of anti-abortion campaign group Precious Life, said: "What happened here today was upholding democracy. This court made a ruling that this court has no right to make decisions for Northern Ireland.
"Our laws matter because every life matters," she added.
Updated: June 7, 2018 04:03 PM