Opinion Former Article

Legal win for abortion rights in Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland Humanists has welcomed the High Court of Justice’s ruling today that women in Northern Ireland should be given legal access to abortions in cases where a woman’s pregnancy has a fatal foetal abnormality, in a landmark decision which should guarantee changes to the country’s restrictive abortion laws.

The court in Belfast heard that Northern Ireland’s abortion laws are in breach of the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights, after hearing the case of Sarah Ewart who was denied an abortion in Northern Ireland in spite of having a fatal foetal abnormality.

Northern Ireland Humanists intervened in the case, which was heard in court in February, providing evidence on the importance of autonomy in decision-making by women and girls who become pregnant with fatal foetal abnormalities. Eminent expert in medical and bioethical studies, Professor Emeritus of Bioethics at the University of Manchester, John Harris, provided evidence of behalf of Northern Ireland Humanists.

Sarah was forced to travel to England to have an abortion after being told her pregnancy would not result in a child that could survive outside the womb. Sarah argued in court that denying her an abortion was a breach of her human rights.

Northern Ireland Humanists supports the rights of women and girls to dignity and personal autonomy, and accordingly their rights to choose and access safe and lawful abortion, regardless of the circumstances of their pregnancies. In recent years, Northern Ireland Humanists has intervened in several cases concerning Northern Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws. Last year, Sarah Ewart won ‘Humanist of the Year’ for her campaigning work on abortion.

Earlier this year, MPs voted to compel Northern Ireland to provide legal abortions in at least the cases of sexual crime and foetal abnormality unless power-sharing in Northern Ireland resumes before 21 October. That looks increasingly unlikely.

Northern Ireland Humanists coordinator Boyd Sleator said: ‘We welcome the court’s decision that Northern Ireland’s abortion laws are incompatible with human rights law, which protects women’s rights to choose what happens to their bodies.

‘This is a momentous day for Northern Ireland in ensuring that more women will be given safe, legal access to abortions at home rather than being forced to travel to Britain. Sarah Ewart has been through an agonising journey and her fight will be remembered by women in generations to come.

‘While this case only applies to women who have fatal foetal abnormalities, we hope it will force wider abortion law reform in Northern Ireland so that women in other circumstances who need an abortion can access safe, proper healthcare when they need it.’

About the case

Abortion law in Northern Ireland is one of the most restrictive in Europe. Current restrictions force women to either travel to the UK to receive treatment, risk prosecution for procuring illegal online abortion pills, or continue their pregnancies against their wishes and in violation of their rights. There is no exception made for pregnancies that arise as a result of sexual crime, or where there is a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality. A termination is only lawful when it constitutes a threat to a woman’s life or a serious, permanent, or long term effect on her physical or mental health. Only 12 abortions took place in Northern Ireland in 2017/18 according to data published in January.

This case focuses on pregnancies where there is a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality. The Court has declared that Sarah Ewart’s rights under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (concerning the right to respect for private and family life) are breached by Northern Ireland’s abortion law.

In a separate case last year the Supreme Court ruled that the fact that abortion in Northern Ireland is illegal in the cases of rape, incest, and fatal foetal abnormality, is a breach of the Human Rights Act. Due to a technicality however the ruling did not have binding effect. Sarah Ewart’s case has now built on the Supreme Court decision by setting that binding precedent.

Separately, earlier this year, MPs voted to compel Northern Ireland to provide legal abortions in at least the cases of sexual crime and foetal abnormality unless power-sharing in Northern Ireland resumes before 21 October. That looks increasingly unlikely, but today’s decision should guarantee that this reform must go ahead even if it does happen.

The decision did not result in a ‘declaration of incompatibility’ between Northern Ireland abortion law and human rights law, because the judge took into account the fact that the law may well change after 21 October anyway. Instead, the judge invited further submissions from the parties on the impact of that forthcoming law change.

About Northern Ireland Humanists’ intervention

Northern Ireland Humanists has provided a written legal submission, and has also provided evidence from Humanists UK patron and eminent expert in medical and bioethical studies, Professor Emeritus of Bioethics at the University of Manchester, John Harris. Prof Harris’ evidence concerns the ethical and philosophical framework surrounding the concept of reproductive liberty and the application of these philosophical principles in FFA cases in particular.

Northern Ireland Humanists is represented by solicitor Janet Farrell of Bhatt Murphy solicitors through agent solicitors Harte, Coyle and Collins in Belfast. Steve McQuitty BL, assisted by Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC of Doughty Street Chambers, drafted the submissions for Northern Ireland Humanists.

NOTES:

For more information contact Humanists UK press manager Casey-Ann Seaniger at casey@humanism.org.uk or 020 7324 3078.

Read our previous news item on Sarah Ewart: https://humanism.org.uk/2019/02/01/humanists-uk-intervenes-in-northern-ireland-abortion-case-at-high-court/

Humanists UK has long campaigned in defence of women’s reproductive rights and has intervened in the three other recent cases concerning Northern Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws, A and B, NIHRC, and JR76. Its policies and approach to abortion are informed by its ethical position which supports a woman’s right to dignity and personal autonomy and accordingly to access a safe and lawful abortion with appropriate secular counselling and after-care should she choose to do so. It has successfully campaigned to oppose changes to the law in England and Wales that seek to restrict access to abortion. It is a member of the Voice for Choice coalition, the We Trust Women campaign, and the Back Off campaign. Its section Northern Ireland Humanists is a member of the Trust Women coalition, coordinated by Alliance for Choice.

Read more about our work in the Sarah Ewart case here and here.

Read about Humanists UK’s campaigning work on abortion: https://humanism.org.uk/campaigns/public-ethical-issues/sexual-and-reproductive-rights/

Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by over 85,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefiting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.

Northern Ireland Humanists is a part of Humanists UK, working with the Humanist Association of Ireland.

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