UK Supreme Court says it can not rule on Northern Ireland’s abortion law

Arturo Kim
June 10, 2018

The Supreme Court opined that Northern Ireland's abortion laws are contrary to human rights.

By a majority decision, the justices said that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC), which brought the appeal, did not have the power to "institute abstract proceedings of this nature".

The devolved Northern Ireland Assembly voted in February 2016 against legalising abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, rape or incest.

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"The court does not have jurisdiction to make a declaration of incompatibility in this case."

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The commission a year ago argued that the current law criminalises "exceptionally vulnerable" women and girls and subjects them to "inhuman and degrading" treatment. One group of activists drove around Northern Ireland distributing abortion pills.

However, the fact that the Supreme Court dismissed the case because of doubts about the Human Rights Commission's right to bring it means the judges' views on the anti-abortion laws do not have legal force, which is reassuring for abortion foes.

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Currently, women can only access an abortion in Northern Ireland if their life is at risk or there is a permanent or serious risk to physical or mental health.

The court heard from numerous women who had been victims of the near-total abortion ban in Northern Ireland.

The appeal judges said the law in Northern Ireland should be left to the Stormont Assembly and not judges, saying the complex moral and religious questions behind the issue should be determined by a legislature rather than a court. Since the Irish referendum was approved, British Prime Minister Theresa May has dealt with mounting pressure to reform Northern Ireland's abortion statutes.

But the case for change has received fresh impetus from the Republic of Ireland's landmark referendum vote to legalise abortion last month. "A failure to act would be a cruel betrayal of women".

Speaking to assembled media on Thursday morning, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, meanwhile, stated that the issues relating to Northern Ireland's abortion law should be decided "by the people who live in Northern Ireland". During an emergency debate in the House of Commons on Tuesday, Stella Creasy put forward a motion which advocated repealing two sections of the Offences Against the Person Act. Heidi Allen, a Conservative Member of Parliament (MP) spoke in favor of changing Northern Ireland's laws, citing her own experience having an abortion. It is now time to listen to the women of the United Kingdom and ensure safe, accessible abortion - which saves and improves lives - is available to everyone who needs it. "What we need is compassion and services in Northern Ireland".

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