Human Rights

Northern Ireland's abortion prohibitions violate human rights, Belfast judge rules

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A judge on the Belfast High Court in Northern Ireland ruled Monday that the region’s prohibition of abortions in cases of rape, incest and fetal abnormality violates the human rights of women, Reuters reports.

Judge Mark Horner upheld arguments by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission that the prohibition went against the European Convention on Human Rights. The judge said the courts needed to step in because the issue is “unlikely to be grasped by the legislature in the foreseeable future.”

Northern Ireland permits abortions only to save the life of the mother or if it would render her a “physical or mental wreck,” and did not embrace Great Britain’s 1967 Abortion Act, which also allows abortions when rape, incest or fetal abnormality is involved. In England, Scotland and Wales, an abortion can be performed during the first 24 weeks if two doctors agree that it is in the woman’s best interest, and after 24 weeks in the case of fetal abnormalities or to save the life or health of the mother, according to the U.K.’s National Health Service. The penalty for performing an illegal abortion in Northern Ireland can range up to life in prison. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission was not seeking to establish a general right to abortion, but to expand the exceptions to the ban.

Judge Horner noted that he felt compelled to rule because the legislature won’t deal with the issue and it would take a referendum to determine how the nation’s majority views abortion in such circumstances, the RTE News reports.

“In the circumstances, given this issue is unlikely to be grasped by the legislature in the foreseeable future, and the entitlement of citizens of Northern Ireland to have their Convention rights protected by the courts, I conclude that the Article Eight rights of women in Northern Ireland who are pregnant with fatal foetal abnormalities or who are pregnant as a result of sexual crime are breached by the impugned provisions,” Judge Horner ruled in a lengthy opinion he read aloud in court, and which he urged the public to read.

The ruling is likely to be appealed and the judge asked for legal submissions before he might decide that Northern Ireland’s law violates the U.K.’s obligations under the Human Rights Act. Justice Minister David Ford had suggested changing the law to permit abortions when there is fetal abnormality, but the judge went further to include rape and incest.

In those circumstances, the judge wrote, the woman “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.”

Attorney General John Larkin, who is the chief legal adviser to the Northern Ireland Assembly, Northern Ireland’s legislature with power to enact laws in matters not reserved to the U.K. Parliament, received special permission to address the court. Larkin told the judge the public did not want the law changed and that doing so would take rights away from unborn children, the RTE News reports.

Larkin is considering an appeal, the BBC News reports.

Colm O’Gorman, executive director of Amnesty International of Ireland, said, “Today’s decision is not just something the Northern Ireland Assembly must act on. The Irish Government is now on notice that it too is violating the European Convention on Human Rights,” according to RTE News.

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