- 04 Oct 19
The high court in Belfast declared Thursday what many of us already knew: the Northern Irish abortion ban is a breach of human rights.
In a stunning victory and perhaps (knock on wood) final blow to one of the most restrictive abortion bans in the developed world, the high court in Belfast ruled yesterday that the ban violates the UK's human rights commitments.
The plaintiff, Sarah Ewart, was 19 weeks pregnant when her doctor detected a fatal foetal anomaly in her baby. Scans showed proof of anencephaly, a rare condition where the brain and skull to not properly develop and render the foetus inviable, should it survive birth.
When she returned to a Belfast hospital to ask about her options for terminating the pregnancy, Ewart found the gravity of the restriction reached further than she expected.
Recalling the occasion to The Guardian, she said the doctors claimed their hands were tied. "They said, 'We can’t tell you anything, we would be prosecuted if we gave you that information.’ They weren’t allowed to talk about the options. No phone numbers. No clinic address.”
The now 29-year-old pursued a second opinion, who insisted, "I'm not going to prison for anyone."
So, Ewart was forced to pursue treatment in London – with the price tag topping £2,100 between clinic appointments, flights, and hotels.
In the six years following the debacle, Ewart has become an abortion care advocate in the North, becoming the plaintiff for a case with Amnesty International against the ban. Yesterday, the high court revealed that in Ewart's case, the ban indeed violated her human rights, according to the UK's internationally-recognised commitments.
The presiding judge, Mrs Justice Siobhan Keegan, ruled that Ewart was denied her Article 8 rights under the European Convention on Human Rights, to which both the UK and Ireland are party. Article 8 ensures: "Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence."
Keegan cited the "horror" that Ewart endured as a compelling reason for her decision.
"She has been affected by the current law in that she has had to travel to seek an abortion in desperate circumstances. In addition, she runs the risk of being directly affected again by the current legal impositions given that she is at risk of a baby having a fatal foetal abnormality," declared the judge. “She has had to modify her behaviour in that she could not have medical treatment in Northern Ireland due to the risk of criminal prosecution.”
Amnesty International, who have been vocal against Northern Ireland's restrictions, helped argue Ewart's case.
"Northern Ireland has the harshest criminal penalty for abortion anywhere in Europe" the organisation said in a statement. "Life imprisonment both for the woman undergoing an unlawful abortion and for anyone assisting her. That sentence even applies in cases where the pregnancy is as a result of rape or incest, or in cases of fatal foetal impairment."
Abortion has been legal in England, Wales, and Scotland since 1967 when the Abortion Act legalised terminations for non-medical reasons up to 24 weeks into a pregnancy, with the permission of two doctors. The act does not apply in Northern Ireland.
Yesterday's ruling, however, marks an overarching stride towards the liberalisation of archaic laws in Northern Ireland.
This summer, MPs in Westminster passed legislation that would liberalise abortion and same-sex marriage laws in the North, should Stormont fail to reconvene before 21 October 2019. The vote was passed by an overwhelming margin of 233 votes, with 332 voting for and just 99 against the measure.
With just over two weeks until the measure comes into effect and the court's ruling yesterday, the abortion rights movement seems to be moving forward. While reactions remain mixed, the following weeks will be crucial in the pursuit of safe and legal abortion access in Northern Ireland.