Legal challenge to Northern Ireland’s abortion law to begin tomorrow
· Appeal against Northern Ireland’s strict abortion law to be heard at the Supreme Court tomorrow.
· Case being brought by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission centres on abortion in cases of rape, incest, and serious foetal anomaly
· Coalition of charities will intervene to argue that current legal framework amounts to inhumane and degrading treatment of women in need of abortion care.
The Supreme Court in London will tomorrow hear a case being brought by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) who will state that the current NI abortion law with regards to cases of rape, incest, or serious foetal anomaly is in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
Currently, abortion is unlawful in Northern Ireland unless it is necessary to preserve the life of the woman, carrying a potential sentence of up to life imprisonment. In 2015/16, just 16 abortions were performed in Northern Ireland, which together with the previous year represents the lowest number on record. In 2015, 833 women from Northern Ireland travelled to England for abortion care.
A High Court judge in Northern Ireland ruled in 2015 that that the current law was in breach of the ECHR in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities or where women are pregnant as a result of sexual crime. The NI Department of Justice and the Attorney General successfully appealed this ruling. Consequently, the NIHRC has taken their case to the Supreme Court.
While the UK government recently announced that they would fund abortion care in England for women resident in Northern Ireland, for some women travelling for medical care will be stigmatising and traumatic. Travelling to England for care also presents particular challenges for women who wish to bring the foetal remains home for burial or genetic testing.
Repeated polling has found that majority of the NI population favour liberalising the law in the contexts before the Supreme Court. The Northern Ireland Life and Times survey, published in June 2017, found that the majority of respondents supported allowing abortion in cases of fatal foetal anomaly (81%), serious foetal anomaly (73%), and where the woman is pregnant as a result of rape or incest (78%.)
A coalition of healthcare charities and women’s rights organisations are intervening in the case: the Family Planning Association, FPA, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, bpas, Birthrights, the Abortion Support Network, Royal College of Midwives, Alliance for Choice, and Antenatal Results and Choices, ARC.
Commenting on the case:
Ashleigh Topley, Alliance for Choice:
“I am intervening as a member of Alliance for Choice but also as an individual who has endured the reality of being forced to continue with a doomed pregnancy due to fatal foetal abnormality. I hope that by sharing the detail of the most difficult time of my life to date, the outcome of this case will be that women and pregnant people can access an essential healthcare service in Northern Ireland and will no longer have to suffer additional trauma and distress like I did when already facing the heartbreaking diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality.”
Ann Furedi, Chief Executive, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, bpas:
“This case illustrates how women in even the most desperate circumstances – women who are victims of sexual assault, women who have received a tragic diagnosis of a severe foetal anomaly - are denied access to abortion care in Northern Ireland.
“The UK government’s commitment to fund abortion care in England was a true landmark moment – but it is not the solution to the injustice of Northern Ireland’s draconian abortion laws.
“Whatever the outcome of the Supreme Court case, we urge NI politicians to listen to the majority of their citizens who support liberalising the law, and work to provide women with the care they need at home.”
Jane Fisher, Director, Antenatal Results and Choices (ARC):
“ARC is intervening in the case on behalf of women in Northern Ireland who have a fetal anomaly diagnosis and face the painful prospect of travelling to England if they wish to access a termination. We have regular contact on our helpline with women and their partners in this situation. They are in a state of shock and grief at the devastating news they have had about their baby and then incredulous that they then have to leave their home and those closest to them to access treatment at such a traumatic time. This adds a layer of almost untenable distress.”
Rebecca Schiller, Chief Executive, Birthrights:
"Access to termination in these traumatic circumstances should be available to all women in their home country. Birthrights hopes that this case will advance the human rights of women in Northern Ireland and ensure they do not have to add the burden of travel to an already devastating situation."
Ruairi Rowan, Senior Advocacy Officer for FPA in Northern Ireland:
“The recent decision by the UK Government to stop charging women from Northern Ireland to access abortion services in England is the most tangible change that has taken place since the introduction of the Abortion Act. It’s a small step that will make a significant difference to women in Northern Ireland. But it’s not a solution.
“The case before the Supreme Court today highlights how restricted access to abortion really is in Northern Ireland. Abortion law in Northern Ireland is over 150 years old. It has led to women being silenced, stigmatised, and criminalised.
“A clear majority of the Northern Ireland population, and of organisations across civil society, want to see abortion law reform. It’s time for the law to catch up with public opinion. It’s time for change.
“FPA trust women to make decisions regarding their own reproductive health and believe abortion legislation must be brought into the 21st century.”