Human rights activists in the North have welcomed a decision by the UK Supreme Court to dismiss an attempt to overturn the region’s laws on abortion.
The challenge to the law was brought by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) but judges said it would have required the case to have been brought by a woman who alleged she was pregnant as a result of sexual crime or who was carrying an unborn child with a life-limiting condition that meant he or she may not live for very long outside the womb.
Lord Justice Kerr told the court that by a majority of five to two, “the court has expressed the clear view that the law of Northern Ireland on abortion is incompatible with article 8 of the [European] Convention [on Human Rights] in relation to cases of fatal foetal abnormality and by a majority of 4 to 3 that it is also incompatible with that article in cases of rape and incest”.
He added that while this is not a binding decision “it must nevertheless be worthy of close consideration” by those who decide the law.
Pro-life group Both Lives Matter welcomes the ruling of the Supreme Court that the commission does not have standing to challenge the North’s abortion laws.
Dawn McAvoy, co-founder of Both Lives Matter said: “it is not a moment to celebrate, but rather to pause and be thankful for the lives this judgment will save.
“The Supreme Court has dismissed the case brought by the Human Rights Commission. In doing so, it has made clear that there is no human right to abortion. All seven judges have also made clear that they would not have allowed abortion on the grounds of a serious malformation of the unborn child,” she said.
Ms McAvoy described it as a complex case and insisted that there are a number of parts to the decision which have split the court. “The Supreme Court has, by a majority decision, accepted the Attorney General’s argument that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission does not have standing to bring this case. In simple terms, the commission have lost. However, the court have indicated how they would have decided the case if the commission had standing. There were split decisions in relation to the issues of fatal foetal abnormality and rape and incest cases. While we note the views of the court on these matters and are concerned by them, it is important to state that they are non-binding.”
Christian public policy charity CARE also welcomed the decision.
CARE’s Chief Executive Nola Leach said: “we particularly welcome the fact that the Supreme Court again reaffirmed that there is no human right to abortion and that there is nothing in this judgment to say that abortion on request is required by human rights law.”
“We especially welcome the unanimous finding of the court that there is no human rights requirement to allow for abortion on the grounds of disability. This completely disposes of the idea that the current provision in the law of Great Britain, whereby disabled babies can be aborted up to and during birth, is required by any human rights consideration. Instead it emphasises the inherent dignity of disabled people,” she said.
Former barrister Peter Lynas, Director of Evangelical Alliance in the North said: “the case also draws a clear boundary in the abortion discussion. From a human rights perspective the only discussion is about life limiting conditions and sexual crime. Changes beyond that, such as decriminalisation, have nothing to do with human rights.”
He said: “the 2% of hard cases are often used to change the law relating to the other 98% of abortions carried out on healthy unborn children. We remind politicians that the sensitive subject of abortion is a devolved matter”.
He pointed out how in 2016 the North’s Assembly “voted against legalising abortion in cases of life limiting conditions (sometimes called fatal foetal abnormality) or cases of rape, incest or indecent assault. The Assembly has spoken and the decision of the Court today does not change that.”
Currently, abortion is only permitted in Northern Ireland if a woman’s life is at risk or if there is a risk of permanent and serious damage to her mental or physical health.