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Northern Ireland: Time for change as abortion law declared breach of human rights

Amnesty International has called for an urgent change in abortion law in Northern Ireland after a judgment by Belfast’s High Court today declared existing law in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Judge Mr Justice Mark Horner made a ‘declaration of incompatibility’ with regard to the legal bar on abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, rape and incest. This follows a Judicial Review decision by the same court on November 30 which found that Northern Ireland’s abortion laws are in breach of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. 

The judgment should now compel the Northern Ireland Assembly to review and amend the current laws to allow abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, rape and incest.

It is currently illegal in Northern Ireland for an abortion to be carried out, except when the life or the long-term health of the woman is in danger. Additionally, the woman and anyone who assists with an unlawful abortion faces life imprisonment – Europe’s harshest punishment.

The Judicial Review was taken by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and was joined by Amnesty International and local woman Sarah Ewart. Mrs Ewart’s first pregnancy was given a fatal foetal diagnosis, and she had to travel to England to terminate her pregnancy as Northern Ireland laws did not permit her to receive medical treatment within the region.

Patrick Corrigan, Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland Programme Director, who was at the court today, said:

“Today’s High Court decision is a clear call to the Northern Ireland Assembly to bring abortion laws into the twenty-first century.” 

“It is shameful that until now, women in Northern Ireland have been criminalised for taking the difficult decision to terminate a pregnancy – often in very traumatic circumstances including rape and where the foetus will not survive. Today’s ruling is a triumph for reason, compassion and human rights.

“The Northern Ireland Executive must now take a lead in introducing changes to abortion law to ensure that women are able to access fully their human right to healthcare, as directed by the High Court.”

Sarah Ewart said:

“I would like to thank the judge for his humane response to cases like mine. He has done his job. Now Northern Ireland’s politicians should help us by doing their job in the Assembly.

“Having a termination was one of the hardest decisions I have ever had to make. Faced with this personal tragedy, I was forced to travel to England for medical care that was not legally accessible to me at home.

“Unfortunately, I have a high risk of a fatal foetal diagnosis with every pregnancy I have. I need our politicians to change the law without further delay so that I, and other women like me, will no longer have to go through the pain I experienced.

“Justice Horner has directed our politicians to stop turning their backs on me and women in similar positions. From now on, women’s healthcare must come first.”



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