Abortions in court in Northern Ireland

13 October 2017
What was claimed

The High Court ruled that Northern Ireland’s abortion law was contrary to international human rights law, though this has since been successfully appealed.

Our verdict

Correct. The case is now being appealed to the Supreme Court.

"It was just a few years ago that the High Court ruled that Northern Ireland’s abortion law was contrary to international human rights law. Now while that was recently appealed, and the appeal was won, that still goes to show how significantly women in Northern Ireland are suffering and this is a matter of public healthcare. Women in Northern Ireland can’t be abandoned under the excuse of devolution."

BBC Question Time audience member, 12 October 2017

Abortion is prohibited in Northern Ireland except “where carried out in good faith for the purpose only of preserving the life of the mother.”

A judge of the High Court in Belfast found in 2015 that abortion legislation in Northern Ireland breached Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which requires respect for a person's family life and personal autonomy.

The case was brought by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, a public body which monitors human rights compliance. It says: “The Commission is seeking a change to the law so that women and girls in Northern Ireland have the choice of accessing a termination of pregnancy locally in circumstances of serious malformation of the foetus, rape or incest, without being criminalised for doing so.”

As Full Fact explained at the time, in the High Court judge’s view it was contrary to Article 8 to deny a mother an abortion at any time in the event of a fatal foetal abnormality. In the case of a woman who became pregnant as a result of sexual crime, in the judge’s view it was a breach of Article 8 to deny an abortion up to the date when the foetus could survive outside the womb.

The decision was appealed by the government in Northern Ireland and overturned by the Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland. The three appeal judges gave separate judgments and came to different conclusions on key issues.

The judges noted that there was a debate on abortion in the Northern Ireland Assembly on 10 February 2016 after the first decision. The Assembly rejected by 59 votes to 40 an amendment legalising abortion where a registered medical practitioner diagnosed a foetal abnormality which was likely to be fatal.

The Appeal Court's decision has been appealed again to the UK Supreme Court, which has the final say. It is due to hear arguments from 24 to 26 October 2017.

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