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High Court in Belfast rules on abortion laws in Northern Ireland

11 October 2019

The laws are not compatible with human-rights commitments in the UK, judge rules


Sarah Ewart (centre) with her solicitor, Darragh Mackin (left), and the campaign manager for Amnesty International Northern Ireland, Grainne Teggart, outside the High Court in Belfast after her case was upheld

Sarah Ewart (centre) with her solicitor, Darragh Mackin (left), and the campaign manager for Amnesty International Northern Ireland, Grainne Teggart, ...

THE High Court in Belfast has ruled that the abortion laws in Northern Ireland are not compatible with human-rights commitments in the UK, less than a week after the main Churches in the province called for the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly to prevent the imposition of UK laws on the procedure on 21 October (News, 4 October).

In July, Westminster legislation decreed that, without a resumption of the Assembly by that date, abortion would be decriminalised, thus bringing the province into line with laws similar to those in the UK.

The court ruled last week that a legal challenge to the existing law was a breach of the European Convention of Human Rights on the grounds that such a procedure was not available in cases of fatal foetal abnormality.

Mrs Justice Siobhán Keegan ruled in favour of a mother, Sarah Ewart, who was forced to travel to England in 2013 for an abortion after a scan showed a foetal abnormality which would have meant that her baby would have died either in the womb or shortly after birth.

After the judgment, which followed a six-year legal process, Ms Ewart said: “It should never have come to this. Today’s ruling is a vindication of all those women who have fought tirelessly to ensure that we never again have to go through what I did in 2013.”

The annual general meeting of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference in Maynooth, which was taking place when the judgment was given, reiterated its opposition and said in a statement that Northern Irish politicians should do everything in their power “to prevent the imposition of this legislation so that the primary value of every human life would be protected, and that a voice be given to those who, to date, have had no voice in this debate”.

The Anglican Archbishop of Armagh, Dr Richard Clarke said in a pastoral letter on Wednesday of last week that it was vitally important that legislation that would align Northern Irish law with that of the UK should be clearly understood by the Church of Ireland.

The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc.) Act “was passed in mid-summer”, and, consequently, “many people would barely have noted the consequences of the Act”, he wrote.

“Although the same-sex marriage issue undoubtedly has implications for society as a whole, it should be noted that the Church has never had ‘ownership’ of the concept of marriage itself (which pre-dates the Christian era and which is in any case understood quite differently in other societies and cultures), but the Church of Ireland’s understanding of the matter of marriage is perfectly clear.

“The Church of Ireland has stated emphatically that ungenerosity towards those of same-gender attraction is abhorrent but, equally, that marriage — which is not in fact about ‘generosity’ or ‘ungenerosity’ — is understood by the Church as being intended by God to be between a man and a woman, and to be a life-long faithful commitment.

“State or civil provision for marriage and Church provision do not have to coalesce, nor do they do so at present in the Republic of Ireland.”

On termination of pregnancy, he said: “The Church of Ireland has followed the common Anglican position that the termination of a pregnancy should be considered only in cases of ‘strict and undeniable medical necessity’ for the mother and the not-yet-born child. Unless local politicians act immediately, abortions would evidently be permitted in Northern Ireland for any reason — simply on request — up to the point of viability and potentially beyond, depending on legal interpretation, in the province from October 22nd.

“The legislation that would pass into Northern Ireland law, I believe, must therefore be seen as irreconcilable with the Christian understanding of the sacredness of life. It is still within the grasp of Northern Irish politicians to prevent this coming into effect, and it is therefore surely a duty of Christian citizens to approach their local representatives to make the concerns they may have fully known,” he said.

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