Court Allows Northern Ireland's Abortion Law To Stand — But Says It Violates Rights

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission's chief commissioner, Les Allamby, speaks to members of the media outside of the Supreme Court in London on Thursday. The court said it could not rule on the commissions' challenge to Northern Ireland's strict abortion laws, but that it would have declared them incompatible with human rights laws otherwise.
The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission's chief commissioner, Les Allamby, speaks to members of the media outside of the Supreme Court in London on Thursday. The court said it could not rule on the commissions' challenge to Northern Ireland's strict abortion laws, but that it would have declared them incompatible with human rights laws otherwise.
Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

The Supreme Court in the United Kingdom has rejected an attempt to overturn Northern Ireland's strict abortion limits — but a majority of the justices also say the current law is "deeply unsatisfactory" and violates human rights.

Northern Ireland — unlike every other part of the U.K. — criminalizes abortion except when a woman's life or health is in danger. There is no exception for rape or incest, or for situations in which a fetus is not expected to live.

Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission had challenged the law in court.

"The commission had argued the law criminalizes vulnerable women and girls and subjects them to inhumane and degrading treatment in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights," NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

The U.K.'s high court, however, says the challenge lacked standing because it was not brought by an actual victim of the law. As a result, the court couldn't overturn the law.

But the justices agreed with the commission that the abortion ban violates human rights — specifically in cases of rape, incest and fatal fetal abnormalities. (Banning abortion in other cases, including serious but not fatal abnormalities, did not violate human rights, the court found.)

You can read excerpts from the judgment at The Guardian.

But the court's opinion, while laid out at length, is not binding because the case has been dismissed on technical grounds.

The BBC's health correspondent in Northern Ireland calls the situation "a bizarre set of circumstances."

"While the case's dismissal means the government is not obliged to change the law, the seven judges have given a strong nod that reform is needed," Marie-Louise Connolly writes.

Any changes to the law will now be up to political leaders, the BBC writes.

Last month, the Republic of Ireland overwhelmingly voted to legalize abortion, a historic move.

That has increased pressure on the U.K. to change the laws in Northern Ireland, which is now an outlier not just in the U.K. but on its own island. And the sea change in the south has also mobilized anti-abortion activists in Northern Ireland.

NPR's Debbie Elliott reported on Tuesday:

"At a demonstration in a Belfast courthouse plaza last week, women chanted, 'No more buses, trains or flights. We demand abortion rights.' ...

"Hundreds of women travel to England to obtain the procedure in any given year, or risk prosecution by using illegal pills that induce a miscarriage. ...

"Northern Ireland has been without a functioning regional government for a year and a half as parties struggle to share power. That's why pressure is mounting on the national government to decriminalize abortion in Northern Ireland. But the politics make it tricky, and Prime Minister May has been hesitant to call for a vote."

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