UK Supreme Court to Rule on Abortion Ban in Northern Ireland

By Jenilyn Brhel
Impunity Watch Reporter, Europe

LONDON, England – Activists in Northern Ireland are urging lawmakers in the United Kingdom to overturn the current restrictions on abortion in the country.

A Protestor at a Rally in Belfast. Photo Courtesy of Charles McQuillan. 

In June, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Council (NIHRC) was unsuccessful in its efforts to convince judges that the rights of sexual assault victims and women with fatal fetal abnormalities were being violated.

The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom will hear evidence from the United Nations Human Rights Committee beginning on Tuesday, November 7th. The hearing is scheduled to last three days and end with a vote. The Supreme Court in London is the final court of appeal. Ireland will hold a referendum in 2018 regarding its strict abortion laws.

Criminalization of abortion began in 1861 with the passage of the Offences against the Person Act. Abortion is currently still illegal in Northern Ireland, but a provision was added in 1945 that allows for termination of a pregnancy if there is a threat to the life of the mother. Those who break the law face life imprisonment.

Human rights activists believe that the strict laws strip women of their fundamental human rights. Nathalie Lieven, lead counsel for the NIHRC said that “The impact of the criminal law in Northern Ireland does amount to inhuman and degrading treatment by the state.”

In 2016, the legislature voted against allowing abortions in cases of rape, incest or fetal abnormality.

Ms. Lieven says that the laws cause “trauma and humiliation” and criminalize those who are already in “exceptionally vulnerable position(s).”

The NIHRC has provided testimony from women who have been denied abortion to bolster their case. Ashleigh Topley was four-and-a-half months into her pregnancy in 2013 when she was told by doctors that her baby’s limbs were not growing and that the baby would die. Ms. Topley was forbidden from terminating the pregnancy. Her baby girl’s heart stopped when she went into labor after thirty-five weeks.

A poll conducted by Amnesty International found that the majority of citizens favor a woman’s choice to terminate a pregnancy given certain factors. 85% of citizens in Northern Ireland would support the choice for abortion if the pregnancy is the result of rape, 81% if there is a diagnosis of fetal abnormality and 89% if a woman’s health is at risk.

Colm O’Groman, Executive Director of Amnesty International in Ireland, stated that the public shows strong support for “women making their own decisions about their pregnancies.” He points to the poll as evidence that the issue is not as divisive as the media portrays it.

“Public support varies on the precise gestational limits but it remains solidly behind women making their own decisions about their pregnancies,” said O’Groman.

Litigation regarding the law was initiated by NIHRC is 2014 and has been ongoing ever since.

For more information, please see:

The Guardian – Supreme Court to Hear Challenge to Northern Ireland Abortion law – 23 October 2017

BBC News – Abortion Laws ‘Punish Sex-Crime Victims’ – 26 October 2017

Reuters – UK Supreme Court Hears Attempt to Change Northern Ireland Abortion law – 24 October 2017

The Washington Post – Rights Group Challenges N Ireland Abortion ban at top Court – 24 October 2017

Author: Jenilyn Brhel

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