The UK's highest court dismissed the latest bid to liberalize Northern Ireland's highly restrictive abortion law on Thursday. The Supreme Court said it had no jurisdiction to consider the challenge brought by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) because the proceedings did not involve an identified victim.
But a narrow majority of the seven-strong panel of justices were of “clear opinion” that the current legislation is “incompatible” with Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights in cases of fatal fetal abnormality, rape and incest, but not serious fetal abnormality.
The Deputy President of the Supreme Court, Lord Jonathan Hugh Mance, said that “the present law clearly needs radical reconsideration.” NIHRC told the court in October that the current law criminalises women and girls, subjecting them to “inhuman and degrading” treatment. It had asked the court to rule on whether it was unlawful to prohibit abortions that arise from sexual crimes or cases involving “a serious fetal abnormality.”
After the Irish republic’s overwhelming abortion referendum result in late May, Northern Ireland is now the only area of the British Isles where termination is only permitted if there is a risk to the woman’s life, or if there are long-term or permanent threats to a woman’s mental or physical health.
The republic’s constitutional reform had spurred questions over whether there should be a similar change to the law in Northern Ireland. Decisions on abortion law are the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Assembly, but it has been suspended for more than a year because of a political impasse. But despite the hiatus, the UK government has said it will not intervene on the issue.
The minority government of British Prime Minister Theresa May relies for its survival in the UK parliament on support from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), a deeply conservative party from Northern Ireland that opposes any attempt to ease restrictions on abortion.
DUP leader Arlene Foster said last week that the referendum in the republic had “no impact upon the law in Northern Ireland.”
Shortly after the ruling, NIHRC Chief Commissioner Les Allamby said in a statement: “The highest court in the UK has today agreed with the Commission that Northern Ireland’s laws on termination of pregnancy are incompatible with human rights.”
Allamby said that Thursday’s proceedings made it clear that Northern Ireland needs to reform its termination laws and called on the UK government to intervene.
“The law now needs to change to stop women and girls from further anxiety and suffering. In the absence of the NI Executive and Assembly it falls to the UK government to make this change and it must act without delay,” he added.
More than 160 lawmakers, including some Conservatives, have written to May demanding she allow a referendum on relaxing the abortion laws in Northern Ireland. The UK’s Royal College of Midwives has also said it supports such a move.