Anti-abortion groups have hailed a determination by a court that the issue of terminations in Northern Ireland should be a matter for politicians – not for judges.
The Court of Appeal in Belfast on Thursday overturned an earlier landmark verdict that the Province’s abortion law is incompatible with human rights legislation when it comes to women who are carrying babies with fatal foetal abnormalities, and women who were made pregnant via rape or incest.
That earlier verdict was the result of a case which had been brought by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission.
On Thursday the judges said that abortion should be the preserve of the Stormont Assembly rather than the judiciary – with one of them declaring that it was illigitimate for judges to impose their own “personal opinions” about the subject upon the Northern Irish public.
In the wake of the ruling, five different anti-abortion groups issued statements welcoming the news.
The Iona Institute NI (which describes itself as a Christian think-tank) said the ruling was “a significant defeat for the Human Rights Commission which was attempting to weaken the right to life of the unborn”, whilst a group called Both Lives Matter (which describes itself as being both “pro-women” and “pro-life”) said it made “very clear that it was not for the court to overreach and amend the law on abortion”.
Meanwhile the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (which calls itself the oldest pro-life group in the world, dating back to 1967) said the judgement affirms that “matters of such huge moral, legal and social implications should be dealt with by the legislature”, whilst Life NI (which calls itself a pregnancy care charity) said the judgement was a “great victory for the pro-life movement”.
Vocal pressure group Precious Life meanwhile dubbed it “a victory for democracy”.
Unlike other parts of the UK (which have allowed a more relaxed approach to abortion since 1967) terminations are only legal within Northern Ireland to protect the woman’s life or if there is a risk of serious damage to her mental or physical health.
In 2015, in a case brought by the Human Rights Commission, the High Court judge ruled the failure to provide abortions for cases of fatal foetal abnormalities and to victims of rape or incest breaches private and family life entitlements under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Attorney General John Larkin QC and the Department of Justice both appealed this.
Now the Court of Appeal – presided over by Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan, Lord Justice Gillen and Lord Justice Weatherup – quashed the earlier ruling.
Setting out the judgment, Lord Justice Gillen said: “The imposition of personal opinions of professional judges in matters of this kind lacks constitutional legitimacy. Courts should not make decisions freighted with the individual attitudes of the judiciary.”
In addition, a cross-appeal mounted by the commission – which sought to have the regime further declared in breach of Articles 3 and 14 of the ECHR prohibiting degrading treatment and discrimination – was also rejected.
The judges also took the highly-unusual step of indicating they will grant leave to take the case to the Supreme Court in London, and later in the day, the Human Rights Commission did confirm that it will indeed appeal.
The text of the judgement revealed that all the judges granted the appeal and The Lord Chief Justice’s office also said they also all agreed the matter should be a matter for the Assembly to legislate upon (as opposed to being primarily a matter for the judiciary to sort out).
But whilst Sir Declan allowed the appeal alongside his the two other judges, the two more junior members of the judiciary disagreed with the Lord Chief Justice on points of law.
In particular, the Lord Chief Justice’s office said it believed that the current legislation could be interpreted to permit abortion in some cases of fatal foetal abnormality and of incest or rape.