The UK Supreme Court says Northern Ireland's strict abortion laws infringe European human rights legislation, but says it can't rule on the matter.
The UK Supreme Court says Northern Ireland’s strict abortion laws infringe European human rights legislation, but says it can’t rule on the matter.
A ruling could have had much deeper implications for the UK government.
A majority of the United Kingdom’s Supreme Court judges believe the current abortion law in Northern Ireland is incompatible with human rights laws, the court said on Thursday.
Four out of seven Supreme Court justices found the province’s strict laws were incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
In Northern Ireland, unlike the rest of the United Kingdom, abortion is illegal even in cases of rape, incest, or serious fetal anomaly. The procedure is only to be permitted where there is evidence that the woman’s life is at risk, or if there is a severe danger to her mental or physical health.
The case was brought by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC), which argued that the law is “inhuman and degrading.”
While the Supreme Court backed the contention that the Northern Irish law infringed human rights legislation, it said that the NIHRC lacked the legal standing to bring the case, which prevented the court from issuing a ruling.
Northern Ireland’s devolved government is responsible for deciding abortion laws, but Westminster can step in if legislation is deemed to contravene the ECHR.
Potential collision course
A ruling against the Northern Irish law would have meant that the UK government and the devolved Northern Irish government would have to thrash out a way to bring Northern Irish legislation in line with the ECHR. However, the Northern Irish assembly — also known as Stormont — is currently suspended because of a political impasse, so direct intervention from London would be necessary to make any adjustments.
Such intervention by British Prime Minister Theresa May to change the status quo would bring her into direct opposition with Northern Ireland’s arch-Unionist and staunchly religious Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which props up May’s government by a slender majority in the UK Parliament.
At present, a woman seeking an abortion in Northern Ireland is forced to travel to other parts of the United Kingdom to terminate her pregnancy.
The law in Northern Ireland had already increasingly come under the spotlight after areferendum in the Irish Republic that saw the electorate vote in favor of drastically relaxing abortion laws last month.