This Northern Ireland Abortion Law Update Could Mean The Tides Are Slowly Turning

by Seth Millstein
Jack Taylor/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Northern Ireland's near-total ban on abortion isn't going anywhere — for now. On Thursday, the United Kingdom's Supreme Court rejected an attempt to overturn Northern Ireland's abortion law, which prohibits the procedure in all instances except when a woman's health is in danger. However, they issued this ruling on strictly technical grounds regarding to how the case was brought, and the majority of the court's judges agreed that, despite their ruling, they believe the law is a violation of human rights.

The news comes shortly after voters in the Republic of Ireland — which shares a border with Northern Ireland but is a separate political entity — overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment striking down the country's nationwide ban on abortion.

While issuing the court's ruling, Lord Mance said he believes Northern Ireland's anti-abortion law is "incompatible with Article 8 of the [European Human Rights] Convention," and three of his fellow judges agreed with him. Article 8 grants Europeans the right to privacy; the commission had argued that the law also violates Article 3, which bans torture and degrading or inhumane treatment, and Article 14, which bans discrimination.

But although the majority of justices ruled that Northern Ireland's law violates the human rights convention, the court nevertheless rejected the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission's request to strike down the law. The court determined that, because the commission itself wasn't a victim of the law it sought to have overturned, "the Supreme Court has no jurisdiction" to strike it down.

However, the Mance also wrote that "if an individual victim did return to court in relation to the present law," the court "would in all likelihood” strike down the law. Hours later, an actual victim of the law announced that she will indeed be bringing the case again in light of the Supreme Court's ruling.

In 2013, Sarah Ewart was told 19 weeks into her pregnancy that the fetus she was carrying lacked a properly developed brain or skull, and wouldn't survive birth. But this didn't fall within the narrow conditions in which abortion is allowed in the country, and so Ewart booked a flight to London and had the operation there. She's been a leading pro-choice activist in Northern Ireland ever since, and after the Supreme Court's ruling, Amnesty International announced that it will be working with Ewart to challenge the abortion ban in Belfast High Court.

“In light of the findings that the legislation as it stands breaches our client’s human rights, and in the absence of the formal declaration, our client Sarah Ewart has had no alternative but to begin the process of issuing proceedings against the respective bodies seeking a formal declaration," Ewart's lawyer Darragh Mackin told The Guardian.

Ewart spoke outside of the court after its ruling, and vowed to continue pressing her case.

"Women who go through the situation of a fatal fetal abnormality need the help," Ewart said. "We've been at this five years, and it's five years too long." She added that the matter of Northern Ireland's abortion law is "not religious, nor political — it's medical."

Amnesty International noted that in the court's ruling, Mance concluded that Northern Ireland's current policy is "untenable," and "clearly needs radical reconsideration."

"Those responsible for ensuring the compatibility of Northern Irish law, will no doubt recognise and take account of these conclusions, by considering how to amend the law, in the light of the ongoing suffering being caused by it," the judge wrote.

It's possible that, even in the absence of a future court ruling, Northern Ireland's abortion law could be overturned legislatively. After the Supreme Court issued its ruling, Northern Ireland's secretary of state said that the government is "carefully considering" the matter, and that the "analysis and comments from the court ... will be clearly heard by [parliament] and politicians in Northern Ireland."