U.K. Government Debates Changing Northern Ireland’s Abortion Laws

Don’t ask Northern Irish women to beg for their human rights with an abortion referendum

Caitlin protesting outside Downing Street in 2017

The Supreme Court has dismissed an appeal brought by campaigners to change Northern Ireland's abortion laws despite concluding they are "incompatible" with human rights legislation.

Because by 4 to 3, the court found itself unable to issue a formal declaration of incompatiblity with the European Convention on Human Rights as the NI Human Rights Commission had brought its action on legal principle rather than basing it on the cases of particular women.

He said the law in Northern Ireland had been shown to reduce the number of abortions in the jurisdiction, and said: "For that reason I am very thoughtful about any change in the law in Northern Ireland".

'The need for amendment is evident... the present legislative position in Northern Ireland is untenable and intrinsically disproportionate in excluding from any possibility of abortion pregnancies involving fatal foetal abnormality or due to rape or incest... the present law clearly needs radical reconsideration.

Abortion rights activists called the court's ruling on the law's incompatibility a "landmark decision" that would put pressure on the British government to act, while anti-abortion groups emphasized there was no requirement to do so.

It comes a day after MPs at Westminster debated calls for change to abortion laws in Northern Ireland.

DUP chief whip Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said 100,000 people are alive in Northern Ireland today because the Abortion Act 1967 was not accepted.

The court heard from numerous women who had been victims of the near-total abortion ban in Northern Ireland.

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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.

She said May has an obligation to make sure the United Kingdom government is "now longer acting unlawfully by breaching the human rights of women across Northern Ireland".

The Northern Irish law pertaining to abortion is now the strictest in the United Kingdom and permits abortion only when there is real and substantial risk of loss of the woman's life, including from a risk of suicide, that can only be averted by carrying out an abortion.

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

Anyone who unlawfully carries out an abortion could be jailed for life.

The UK Government has ultimate responsibility to legislate to reform Northern Ireland's inhumane abortion laws.

Rosa Curling, a solicitor with Leigh Day, representing a coalition of pro-choice organisations, said there were "no longer any excuses" to deny women in Northern Ireland the same rights granted to women elsewhere in the UK.

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