Britain's top court says can not rule on Northern Ireland abortion law

Charlene Craig
June 10, 2018

Amnesty International said the UK Supreme Court's ruling that Northern Ireland's abortion law is a violation of women's human rights must force the UK Government to urgently legislate for change.

By a majority decision, the justices said that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC), which brought the appeal, did not have the power to "institute abstract proceedings of this nature".

Strict Northern Ireland laws that prohibit abortions in cases of pregnancy as a result of incest or rape, and in cases when the fetus has a likely fatal abnormality, have drawn scrutiny since the Republic of Ireland voted overwhelmingly in May to repeal its own strict laws.

The NIHRC argued in October 2017 that the current law subjects women to "inhuman and degrading" treatment, causing "physical and mental torture" as it bans abortion in cases of rape, incest or serious foetal anomaly.

The vocal anti-abortion campaigner made the remarks amid growing calls for reform of the law in Northern Ireland, where terminations are banned in all but extreme circumstances.

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"It's my strong, personal, view that it is completely unsustainable for us to have a different law from the south on abortion".

She called for the United Kingdom and Irish governments to then come together under a peace process construct called the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference to discuss how to change the laws on terminations in Northern Ireland.

However, a majority of the seven judges presiding over the appeal declared that Northern Ireland's law on abortion is "incompatible" with Human Rights Law.

But that decision was overturned in June a year ago by three of Northern Ireland's most senior judges. "A failure to act would be a cruel betrayal of women".

Responding for the Government, Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley said Westminster should not seek to impose abortion.

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Speaking to assembled media on Thursday morning, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, meanwhile, stated that the issues relating to Northern Ireland's abortion law should be decided "by the people who live in Northern Ireland".

An emergency debate on the issue of abortion in Northern Ireland was held in the House of Commons on Tuesday.

In England, Scotland and Wales, an abortion can be legally carried out up to a 24-week gestational limit or later if the mother's health is threatened or there is a substantial risk the baby will have serious disabilities.

Mrs O'Neill said she wanted repeal of the relevant sections of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act to ensure abortion was no longer treated as a criminal offence in the region.

Fellow Cabinet minister Penny Mordaunt went further, saying MPs had sent a message to Northern Ireland's politicians that if they do not act on the issue, "we will".

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