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Belfast High Court Rules Northern Ireland's Abortion Ban Incompatible With Human Rights

Belfast High Court Rules Northern Ireland's Abortion Ban Incompatible With Human Rights

December 2, 2015 — The High Court in Belfast on Monday ruled that Northern Ireland's ban on almost all abortions does not comply with the European Convention on Human Rights, the Washington Post reports (Izadi, Washington Post, 11/30).


Northern Ireland is the only region in the United Kingdom that does not operate under the 1967 Abortion Act, which means that many women in the province have to travel to other areas to obtain an abortion. Specifically, Northern Ireland currently allows abortion only when the woman's life is in danger or there is risk of permanent, serious damage to the woman's physical or mental health.

According to an Amnesty International report published in October, about 70% of Northern Ireland residents said they favored allowing abortion in cases of rape and incest and 60% said they supported allowing abortion in instances of fetal anomaly. However, most political parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly have opposed changing the law (Women's Health Policy Report, 12/12/14). According to the Post, Northern Ireland's minister of justice previously has expressed support for permitting abortion in instances of fatal fetal anomalies but did not indicate he would consider allowing abortion in instances of rape (Washington Post, 11/30).

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission filed a lawsuit challenging the restrictions (Dalby, New York Times, 11/30). NIHRC said the challenge aimed to expand abortion access under Northern Ireland's abortion law to include instances of rape, incest or "serious malformation" of a fetus. According to the group, the current law violates three articles in the European Convention on Human Rights, including rights to privacy, freedom from inhumane and degrading treatment, and protection against discrimination on any grounds, including sex (Women's Health Policy Report, 12/12/14).

Details on Ruling

Judge Mark Horner in his ruling said the current law exacerbates the trauma experienced by victims of rape and incest. "She has to face all the dangers and problems, emotional or otherwise, of carrying a fetus ... and is merely a receptacle to carry the [fetus] of a rapist and/or a person who has committed incest, or both," he said, adding, "In doing so, the law is enforcing prohibition of abortion against an innocent victim of a crime in a way which completely ignores the personal circumstances of the victim" (New York Times, 11/30).

Horner added that there is "no political will" to alter the law. He said it is "impossible to know how the majority of people in Northern Ireland view abortion without a referendum" (Washington Post, 11/30).

According to the Times, the ruling will put "intense pressure" on lawmakers in the province to legalize abortion in instances of rape, incest and fatal fetal anomalies (New York Times, 11/30).

NIHRC Chief Commissioner Les Allamby praised the ruling, saying, "Today's result is historic, and will be welcomed by many of the vulnerable women and girls who have been faced with these situations" (Washington Post, 11//30).