Northern Ireland’s near-blanket ban on abortion breaches human rights legislation, a High Court judge has said.
The landmark judgment delivered to Belfast High Court could pave the way for a relaxation of the region’s strict laws, which prohibit women accessing terminations even in cases of rape, incest or where there is a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality.
The case was brought by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC).
In his decision, Mr Justice Mark Horner referred to the European Convention on Human Rights, saying: “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.”
The UK’s 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland, where abortions are illegal except in limited circumstances where the life or mental health of the mother is in danger. Anyone who performs an illegal termination could be jailed for life.
Legal argument from both sides was heard over three days in June. Delivering his judgment over more than two hours, Judge Horner said the failure to provide exceptions to the law in certain circumstances breached a woman’s right to privacy.
In cases of fatal foetal abnormality (FFA), he concluded that the mother’s inability to access an abortion was a “gross interference with her personal autonomy”.
The judge 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.
“It is not proportionate to refuse to provide an exception to the criminal sanctions imposed on the impugned provisions.”
Speaking outside the court, Les Allamby, NIHRC chief commissioner, described the ruling as “historic”.
He said: “We welcome this landmark ruling. I think it is a good day for human rights.”
But anti-abortion campaigner Bernadette Smyth expressed disappointment. She said: “We have to look at these very rare cases and provide better support for women. Killing a child in all circumstances is wrong.”