High Court rules abortion ban in Northern Ireland violates human rights

Belfast's High Court ruled Monday that Northern Ireland's abortion law is in violation of international human rights laws, by prohibiting abortions in almost all circumstances.

Cathal McNaughton/Reuters
Siobhan Clancy takes part in a vigil in memory of Savita Halappanavar and in support of changes to abortion law in Dublin November 17, 2012. A wave of protests have taken place across Ireland in recent days in response to the death of 31-year old Halappanavar who died following a miscarriage 17 weeks into her pregnancy.

Northern Ireland’s sweeping ban against abortion is a violation of human rights, Belfast’s High Court found in a ruling Monday.

Currently, abortion is only permitted in Northern Ireland when the mother’s life is in danger. But Judge Mark Horner upheld a challenge Monday by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, ruling that certain abortion prohibitions violate provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights. Such provisions permit abortion in cases of rape, incest, and fatal fetal abnormalities.

“International human rights laws dictate that at a minimum, an abortion is acceptable when the physical or mental health of the mother is at risk, the pregnancy is a form of rape or incest, or the health of the fetus is in question,” Tarah Demant, senior director of the Identity and Discrimination Unit at Amnesty International, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. 

“Ireland is a party [of the Convention] so this ruling found that these laws [in Ireland] were in breach of the country’s international obligations.” 

European Community law “is gradually taking precedence over national law and chipping away at differences among the EC’s member states,” the Monitor’s Howard LaFranchi reported. Disagreement between Irish state law and international standards dates back over two decades, when a 14-year-old Irish girl, who became pregnant after being raped, was barred from traveling to Britain for an abortion by a Dublin High Court  in 1992. 

The Pew Research Center suggests more than 7,000 Irish women travel across the sea to Britain each year to receive abortions, as abortion legislation is far more lenient in the rest of the United Kingdom.   

“We are concerned that some of the judgment could lead to an opening of the floodgates here,” said Bernadette Smyth, the director of the Precious Life group, in an interview with BBC News.

But Judge Horner makes it clear he is not arguing for an all out validation of abortion in Northern Ireland.

“There is no right to abortion in Northern Ireland except in certain carefully defined and limited circumstances. The Commission has made it clear that it does not seek to establish such a general right,” Horner wrote in his ruling. “This application is about whether the failure to provide certain limited exceptions to the ban on abortion in Northern Ireland … is in compliance with the rights enjoyed by all the citizens of Northern Ireland under the European Convention on Human Rights.”

Rather than reassure abortion advocates in Ireland, the recent ruling only seeks to fulfill Northern Ireland’s basic requirements under international law. “This ruling rules that Ireland has not been in line, and it must be in line,” Demant explains.

Ultimately, this ruling indicates that the Northern Ireland Assembly must change the abortion law to conform to EU standards. Meanwhile, anti-abortion organizations are urging the Attorney General to repeal the court ruling altogether.

“The Right to Life is granted neither by judges nor politicians, but it is their duty to protect it,” Ms. Smyth writes in a press release Monday. “We cannot and will not accept a ruling that is so morally wrong in denying the fundamental rights of the most vulnerable human beings in society.”

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