A landmark legal challenge to relax Northern Ireland’s strict abortion laws has been successful.
The challenge was brought by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC), which wants access to legal terminations in cases of rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality.
Judge Mr Justice Mark Horner told Belfast High Court: “In the circumstances, given this issue is unlikely to be grasped by the legislature in the foreseeable future, and the entitlement of citizens of Northern Ireland to have their Convention rights protected by the courts, I conclude that the Article Eight rights of women in Northern Ireland who are pregnant with fatal foetal abnormalities or who are pregnant as a result of sexual crime are breached by the impugned provisions.”
Unlike other parts of the UK, the 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland where abortions are banned except where the life or mental health of the mother is in danger.
Anyone who performs an illegal termination could be jailed for life.
The high-profile judicial review was heard over three days in July.
The case was taken against the region’s Department of Justice (DoJ) which, following a public consultation, had recommended a law change in circumstances of fatal foetal abnormality.
However, the NIHRC said the DoJ had not gone far enough and argued the current law was incompatible with human rights legislation regarding inhuman and degrading treatment, privacy and discrimination.
Judge Horner said without a referendum it was impossible to know how the majority of people viewed abortion and noted there was no political will to change the law.
In cases of fatal foetal abnormality (FFA), the judge concluded the mother’s inability to access an abortion was a “gross interference with her personal autonomy”.
He said: “In the case of an FFA there is no life to protect. When the foetus leaves the womb, it cannot survive independently. It is doomed. There is no life to protect.
“Therefore, even on a light touch review it can be said to a considerable degree of confidence that it is not proportionate to refuse to provide an exception to the criminal sanctions imposed on the impugned provisions.”
The judge also claimed the current law placed a disproportionate burden on victims of sexual crime.
He said: “She has to face all the dangers and problems, emotional or otherwise, of carrying a foetus for which she bears no moral responsibility and is merely a receptacle to carry the child of a rapist and/or a person who has committed incest, or both.
“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.”