Ruling on Supreme Court abortion challenge expected in new year

The case was heard by seven justices at the Supreme Court in London

A challenge at the UK’s highest court over the legality of Northern Ireland’s strict abortion law has concluded.

Seven Supreme Court justices in London will give a ruling on the controversial issue at a date yet to be fixed, but thought to be early next year.

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) told the panel of judges, headed by the court’s president Lady Hale, that the current law criminalises “exceptionally vulnerable” women and girls and subjects them to “inhuman and degrading” treatment.

During a three-day hearing, a QC representing the commission argued human rights were being breached, with those affected being forced to go through “physical and mental torture”.

The court has been asked to rule that a prohibition on abortions where a pregnancy arises from rape or incest, or “involves a serious foetal abnormality”, is unlawful.

The NIHRC claims the current law’s effect on women is incompatible with rights under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

But, contesting the appeal, the Stormont Executive’s senior legal adviser, Attorney General John Larkin QC, said Northern Ireland’s criminal law on abortion was a matter for the “democratic judgment” of the legislature.

The legislature, he said, “has struck the proportionate balance required for the protection of the rights of women and unborn children”.

Unlike other parts of the UK, the 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland.

Abortion is illegal except where a woman’s life is at risk or there is a permanent or serious danger to her mental or physical health.

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

Belfast’s High Court made a declaration in December 2015 that the law was incompatible with Article 8 of the ECHR, the right to respect for private and family life, because of the absence of exceptions to the general prohibition on abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities and pregnancies resulting from sexual offences.

But that decision was overturned in June this year by three of Northern Ireland’s most senior judges.

The Assembly voted in February last year against legalising abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality and rape or incest.

Submissions were also made at the Supreme Court by a number of bodies, including seven of the UK’s leading reproductive rights organisations, Humanists UK, Bishops of the Roman Catholic Dioceses in Northern Ireland, the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children and Amnesty International.

Grainne Teggart, Amnesty’s Northern Ireland campaigns manager, said after the appeal concluded: “It is essential that women’s rights in Northern Ireland are now brought in line with human rights standards.

“Women who have an abortion are not criminals, and abortion should not be a matter for the criminal justice system.”

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