London: Northern Ireland’s strict abortion law breaches the human rights of women, the Belfast High Court today said in a “historic” ruling, three years after an Indian dentist died after doctors in the “Catholic country” refused to terminate her 17-week pregnancy due to the legislation.
The long-awaited judgment could lead to the victims of rape and incest as well those suffering from fatal foetal abnormalities having terminations in Northern Irish hospitals.
At present, local medical teams could be jailed for life for carrying out abortions under most circumstances because of the 19th-century law.
“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 foetal abnormalities or who are pregnant as a result of sexual crime are breached by the impugned provisions,” Justice Horner said in his ruling.
It was the case of Indian dentist Savita Halappanavar’s back in October 2012 that resulted in a legislation change to the region’s Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act to allow an abortion if a mother-to-be’s life was at risk.
However, the case of Halappanavar, who died of sepsis at University Hospital Galway after she was refused an emergency termination due to then strict anti-abortion laws, had resulted in a very narrow change to the Catholic country’s laws.
Unlike the rest of the UK, the Abortion Act 1967 has never applied to Northern Irelandand since devolution of powers was restored to the Stormont Assembly, the region has resisted any attempt to relax the near-total ban on terminations in local hospitals.
The judgment does not change the law and any reform has to be debated by the regional parliament.
Back in June, a number of organisations and individuals made submissions to the Belfast high court.
The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) brought the case to extend abortion to cases of serious foetal malformation, rape or incest.
NIHRC head Les Allamby welcomed the latest ruling: “We are please that today the high court has held that the current law is incompatible with human rights and has ruled in the commission’s favour.
“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.”
Northern Ireland’s Department of Justice has six weeks to decide whether to appeal.