A high court judge in Belfast ruled on Monday that Northern Ireland’s current laws against abortion are in violation of women’s rights. The ruling could see an end to the almost total ban on abortion in the country.
In particular, the judgment could lead to women and girls who are the victims of rape, incest, or are suffering from fatal fetal abnormalities being allowed terminations in Northern Ireland hospitals.
Although terminations are legal in the UK, Northern Ireland’s abortion laws fall in line with the Republic of Ireland’s, with an almost flat-out ban. The only case in which terminations are permitted is if the life of the mother is in danger or continuing with the pregnancy could affect her health.
Those found to carry out terminations even in the cause of a fatal fetal abnormality currently face life imprisonment.
Justice Horner told the 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 fetal abnormalities or who are pregnant as a result of sexual crime are breached by the impugned provisions.”
Horner also suggested that a referendum may have to be held in order to implement his recommended reforms.
Northern Ireland’s Attorney General, however, has said he is considering appealing Judge Horner’s ruling.
Judge in the Northern Ireland abortion case had strong words about the argument that women can just go to England: pic.twitter.com/WfDJ4snKiJ— Christine Bohan (@ChristineBohan) November 30, 2015
Welcoming the judgment in Northern Ireland, head of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) Les Allamby said, “We are pleased that today that the high court has held that the current law is incompatible with human rights and has ruled in the commission’s favor.
“Today’s result is historic, and will be welcomed by many of the vulnerable women and girls who have been faced with these situations. It was important for the commission to take this challenge in its own name, in order to protect women and girls in Northern Ireland and we are delighted with the result.”
Attorney General John Larkin has stated that he is “profoundly disappointed” by Judge Horner’s decision and he may launch an appeal.
Larkin has already faced criticism from pro-choice campaigners for overstepping his role as Attorney General in aiding politicians to prevent terminations at the Marie Stopes Clinic in Belfast three years ago.
It is estimated that around 1,000 women and girls from Northern Ireland travel to the UK every year for a termination. Official figures of 800 in 2013 are regarded as an underestimate and include a 13-year-old victim of incest forced to travel to England for an abortion.
The only law regarding abortion in Northern Ireland dates back to the 19th century. The Offences Against the Persons Act 1861 states that those convicted of carrying out a termination should face a life sentence.
The judge’s ruling came just days after Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny announced he would review the abortion ban in the Republic of Ireland if re-elected in the general election due to take place in early 2016.
The pledge to a constitutional review of the Eighth Amendment could see the fourth Republic of Ireland referendum on abortion in 30 years.
If Kenny is re-elected, he said the review would commence within six months of the election, followed by a free vote on the debate by Fine Gael TDs.
Irish Tánaiste and Leader of the government's coalition Labor Party Joan Burton claimed that it was pressure from the Labor party that forced Kenny to finally take a stance on abortion before next year’s election.
“Yet again, we have seen other parties begin to slowly come round to our agenda,” she said.
“Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, in their own ways, have effectively acknowledged the growing momentum for a referendum on the Eighth Amendment in the next government term.”
Both Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald and Minister for Transport Paschal Donohoe are said to have put pressure on the Taoiseach, a claim that is rejected by TDs from his own party, Fine Gael.
Also rejecting these claims, Minister Donohoe said, “This is the Taoiseach who dealt with the X case, a matter that no other taoiseach, no other party leader wanted to deal with.
“He dealt with it because he understood the sensitivities involved in this matter. The Taoiseach has now outlined a similar process will be put in place to deal with this matter.”
The X case was a monumental Supreme Court ruling in 1992 which established the current law that an Irish woman had a right to an abortion if her life was in danger, including a risk of suicide.
Speaking about the continued failure of previous Irish governments to completely engage with the issue, Kenny said, “No government in the intervening period had the courage or the resolution to do what they were required to do, that is to legislate for what the law says, to clarify the law. My Government did.
“I’m very well aware of the many stories that were told to me, arising from the difficulties women have obviously had in this and I feel the sensitivity of that.
“That’s why this has to be a thorough, comprehensive, empathetic and sensitive discussion.”
A report from Amnesty International released earlier this year and entitled “She is Not a Criminal: The impact of Ireland’s abortion law” revealed that since 1971 close to 177,000 Irish women traveled abroad for an abortion - some 4,000 a year.
A poll completed on behalf of Amnesty in June of this year showed that 67 percent of Irish people wished for the act of abortion to be decriminalized.
While 25 per cent disagreed, 81 percent were still in favor of significantly widening the grounds for legal abortion access in Ireland.