The law governing abortion in Northern Ireland is often referred to as “one of the strictest in Europe”, with a life sentence for both a woman who has an illegal abortion and also for those helping her. Unlike the rest of the United Kingdom, the 1967 Abortion Act does not apply to Northern Ireland. Thus the abortion procedure is only carried out when the life or mental health of the mother is in danger, which is rarely found. Between 2013 and 2014, official statistics suggest that only 23 lawful abortions were carried out. This may come as a surprise to most and it seems overlooked by the UK as a whole; two-thirds of people surveyed in an Amnesty International poll said they had no idea that abortion laws were different in Northern Ireland.
However, the future of abortion law in Northern Ireland was recently readdressed when a historic judgement was made in Belfast by a high court judge. It was ruled that Northern Ireland’s almost outright ban on abortion breaches the European Convention of Human Rights. This ruling is most significant as it could consequently lead to women who are victims of rape and incest, or those who are carrying foetuses with fatal abnormalities, being able to have a termination in the hospitals of their home country. In turn, it affords legal protection to health professionals. As Breedagh Hughes, the Royal College of Midwives’ Northern Ireland director, notes it “now gives midwives and other health professionals legal protection and a release from the fear of prosecution. This will enable midwives to offer women who have a diagnosis of fatal foetal anomaly the appropriate care, support and advice that they also have often been denied because of the Assembly’s inertia.”
It was ruled that Northern Ireland’s ban on abortion breaches the European Convention of Human Rights
Previously, women of various ages have travelled in secret from Northern Ireland to England – sometimes further into Europe – to have an abortion carried out. It is estimated that since 1970 at least 60,000 women have made this trip. Yet this is only one course of action they turn to. With the high cost of travel, some women feel their only choice is to source abortion pills online. Worryingly, this is done with no medical advice and these are mostly disreputable websites. In light of this Les Allamby, the head of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, expressed his support of the ruling: “In taking this case we sought to change the law so that women and girls in Northern Ireland have the choice of accessing a termination of pregnancy locally in circumstances of fatal foetal abnormalities, rape or incest, without being criminalised for doing so… We are pleased 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…”
However, despite the support of those for ‘pro-choice’, Northern Ireland’s Attorney General has announced that he is considering whether to appeal the ruling. John Larkin QC expressed that he was “profoundly disappointed by this decision” and that he is “considering grounds for appeal”. This is not the first time the attorney general has iterated views against ‘pro-choice’. Three years ago he requested a Stormont investigation into the opening of the Marie Stopes Clinic. What’s more, he went so far as to offer politicians advice on how to ensure no kind of termination was carried out by the clinic’s Belfast office. As a consequence of this, there were allegations that he was overstepping his role as a lawmaker. Is he overstepping his role in this instance? Amnesty International said it was shocking that laws on abortion “date back to the 19th century and carry the harshest criminal penalties in Europe”.
Yet, even if John Larkin QC omits to appeal, the ruling only concerns women in particularly difficult situations. Thus, it does not apply to the large number of women who have ‘ordinary’ unwanted pregnancies. Thus, many will continue to make the journey to England to carry out abortion procedures. It is also worth noting that although they are UK residents, they do not qualify as eligible to have the procedure done on the NHS. With this in mind, although the high court in Belfast has made a significant ruling, does it really do enough to respect the choices women make and uphold their human rights?