Northern Ireland must bring abortion laws into 21st century

Northern Ireland must urgently bring its abortion laws into the 21st century and into line with international human rights standards, Amnesty International said today as a Court of Appeal hearing on the termination of pregnancy came to an end.

The Northern Ireland Court of Appeal heard four days of evidence in a case brought by the Northern Ireland Executive against a ruling by the High Court last November. The High Court ruling – in a case take by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission - found that Northern Ireland’s restrictive and punitive abortion laws deny women and girls their rights, under the European Convention on Human Rights, in cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality.

The appeal court heard harrowing stories of women and girls who have had to travel to England for a termination because of the near-total ban on abortion in Northern Ireland. These included a 12-year-old who was raped by a family member who, if she had attempted to have a termination in Northern Ireland, could have faced the prospect of life imprisonment under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act.

The court also heard recent Amnesty International polling evidence, which showed that seven in 10 people support reform of abortion laws in cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality, demonstrating that the Assembly is out of touch with society at large on the matter.

Patrick Corrigan, Northern Ireland Programme Director of Amnesty International, an intervenor in the case, said:

“The case has clearly been made against Northern Ireland’s outdated abortion laws yet the Executive appears to be intent on retaining legislation more in keeping with the 19th century than the 21st. Every day that they stall on reforming the law, the rights of women and girls across Northern Ireland are being abused.

“How shocking that a 12-year-old suffering the trauma of being raped then had to travel to England for a termination or face the prospect of criminal prosecution and life imprisonment. We hope the Court of Appeal will act in accordance with international human rights standards to ensure the rights of women and girls in Northern Ireland.”

Judgment has been deferred.

The law governing abortion in Northern Ireland is one of the most restrictive in Europe and carries the harshest criminal penalty of any European country – life imprisonment both for the woman who has an illegal abortion and for anyone who has assisted in the process.

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