Belfast Court Finds Abortion Ban Violates Human Rights Obligations

By: Hannah Gabbard

Journal of Global Rights and Organizations, Associate Articles Editor

BELFAST, United Kingdom — On October 3, 2019, the High Court in Belfast ruled that the abortion law in Northern Ireland, which banned abortion in all cases except when a mother’s life is at risk, violated Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (“ECHR”). Under the abortion law in Northern Ireland, rape, incest, or a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality (“FFA”) are not grounds for a lawful abortion. 

Sarah Ewart, left, leaves the Belfast High Court. Photo Courtesy of CNN.

In 2013, Sarah Ewart, the applicant, travelled to England to terminate her pregnancy after an ultrasound scan at 20 weeks revealed that Ewart’s baby would either die before or shortly after delivery. Ewart was denied an abortion under the law even though her pregnancy was a case of FFA. Due to the law, Ewart was not allowed to bring the remains of her daughter back into Northern Ireland to allow for an autopsy. Ewart claimed that legislation preventing an abortion in cases of FFA violated domestic, human rights and international law and was incompatible with Article 8 of ECHR which guarantees the right to respect for private life. Additionally, she challenged the Departments of Justice and Heath for failing to implement measures to comply with Article 8 of ECHR.

Ewart brought the case after a United Kingdom Supreme Court judgement in June 2018 found that Northern Ireland’s abortion law was inconsistent with the United Kingdom’s obligations under Article 8 of ECHR. The UK Supreme Court could not attach a declaration of incompatibility to the law because the original applicant, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, was not a “victim” of any unlawful act. In Ewart’s case, Justice Siobhan Keegan followed the ruling from the UK Supreme Court that the law was incompatible with human rights. In following the ruling, Justice Keegan’s judgement concerned whether Ewart had standing and if so, whether declaratory relief would be appropriate. 

Justice Keegan found that Ewart had standing because she had to travel to seek an abortion due to the current law and she is at risk to be affected by the law in the future because of her continued risk to have a baby with FFA. Further submissions to the court are required before Justice Keegan will decide on an appropriate relief. 

Abortion rights are highly contested in Northern Ireland due to the religious influences of the Protestant and Catholic communities. Pressure to ease the abortion restrictions had mounted in Northern Ireland after Ireland voted to end the constitutional ban on abortion in May 2018. 

The implications of this ruling are uncertain in Northern Ireland due to the simultaneous legislation proposed in the British Parliament. In 2017, Northern Ireland’s regional government became decentralized when a power-sharing agreement between Protestant and Catholic political parties failed. In July 2019, United Kingdom legislators voted for the Northern Ireland to decriminalize abortion and extend same-sex marriage if the regional government is not restored by October 21. 

This ruling in Northern Ireland contributes to the larger conversation on abortion rights internationally. In the United States, President Trump introduced international version of the “gag rule”  in 2018 where international health clinics that either provide or refer women to abortion services are no longer permitted to receive US development funding. The restriction of abortion services push women to seek abortion in dangerous settings or, in the case of Sarah Ewart, travel overseas to access an abortion.

While acknowledging the pending legislative action in her judgement, Justice Keegan stated that the prospect of upholding the abortion ban would not “serve any benefit” or “be right to ask another woman to relieve the trauma these events undoubtedly cause.” 

For further information, please see:

BBC – Northern Ireland abortion law found to breach human rights – 3 Oct. 2019

CNN – Northern Ireland abortion law breaches human rights, high court rules – 3 Oct. 2019

Judicial Communications Office – Court Delivers Abortion Legislation Judgement – 3 Oct. 2019

Reuters – Court rules Northern Ireland abortion ban violates UK human rights commitments – 3 Oct. 2019

CNN – Women in Northern Ireland to get access to abortion services in Republic – 15 Nov. 2018


Author: Hannah Gabbard