February 26, 2024

What will happen with Northern Ireland’s abortion law?

A ruling by the UK Supreme Court could doom it

Northern Ireland has one of the world’s most restrictive laws on abortion. But its days could be numbered.

Although Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, the UK’s Abortion Act 1967 does not extend across the Irish Sea. Abortion there is only permitted to save the life of the mother. Now that abortion has been legalised in the Republic, south of the border, abortion campaigners are calling for change.  

The political situation there is tense and complex. Socially conservative Northern Ireland has been without a working government since January 2017, when Sinn Fein withdrew from the governing coalition. If abortion were put to the vote in its Assembly, it is not certain that it would pass – but in any case the corridors of Stormont are empty nowadays. So the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) brought the current law to the UK’s Supreme Court in an effort to overturn it.

The judgement, handed down this week, is unusual. By a 4 to 3 vote, the justices concluded that they could not rule in the case because the NIHRC had no standing to file it. Nothing daunted by their incapacity, they proceeded to explain why a legitimate challenger ought to succeed. Of the seven justices, five agreed that the law violated Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights which protects privacy and family life; two thought that it was incompatible with Article 3, which prohibits torture.

“This is a victory, a historic landmark for women’s rights in Northern Ireland,” David Russell, chief executive of the NIHRC. “It has been clear that Northern Ireland’s laws are incompatible with human rights and there needs to be a political solution.”

The situation leaves UK Prime Minister Teresa May in a quandary. After the referendum in the Republic, she is under pressure to see that Northern Ireland liberalises its law on abortion. However, her majority in Parliament depends on the support of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party and its leaders have declared that the North “should not be bullied into accepting abortion on demand.”

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