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On the 3rd October, the High Court in Belfast ruled that Northern Ireland’s current abortion legislation was in breach of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR). The case was brought forward by Sarah Ewart who suffered the ordeal of having to travel to England from Northern Ireland in order to get an abortion. This followed a diagnosis that ascertained that the foetus would not survive outside of the womb, however, despite these circumstances, should Mrs. Ewart have got an illegal abortion in Northern Ireland, she could have faced life imprisonment.
In a ruling that Mrs. Ewart described as a “turning point for women”, Northern Ireland’s current abortion legislation was deemed to be in breach of Article 8 of the ECHR which protects the reproductive rights of women and “falls within the scope of the right to respect for one’s private life”. Despite last week’s landmark ruling, the judge did not go so far as to formally declare incompatibility as Northern Ireland’s current abortion laws could potentially change this month. This is thanks to an amendment proposed by Labour MP Stella Creasy which sought to expand a 1967 bill which legalized certain abortions in England, Wales and Scotland but excluding Ireland. This is due to the devolution of certain powers including laws on abortion to the Northern Irish assembly. Mrs. Creasy’s proposal to expand the abortion bill was backed by a majority of MPs in May and will take effect on 21st October so long as the Northern Irish Assembly does not reconvene before then which, at this point appears unlikely.
Though this ruling is not decisive and does not declare incompatibility, it nonetheless represents a positive move for reproductive rights. In addition, so long as the Irish Assembly does not reconvene before the 21st October, the change in abortion laws will come less than a year after the Republic of Ireland made the same step. This is undeniably a cause for optimism despite the fact that this move comes over half a century after the decriminalization of abortion in the rest of the UK. In spite of this, the fierce backlash from lobbyists within the DUP and Sinn-Féin is of grave concern and a cross-party anti-abortion movement has the potential to scupper the social progress that this High Court ruling represents.
The expansion of the abortion bill has been stymied due to opposition by the largest party in Northern Ireland, the DUP. The DUP is a staunch traditionalist party and thus maintains a strong pro-life stance on the issue. Their opposition in the Northern Irish Assembly, as well as their position as the Conservatives’ coalition partner in Westminster, had allowed them to prevent the expansion of the abortion bill. Even following the Republic of Ireland’s lifting of the ban less than a year ago, Theresa May resisted calls to give MPs a free vote on the issue in Northern Ireland. This decision was born out of the need to appease the DUP and not cause any friction that would potentially threaten Theresa May’s fragile majority. Public opinion on the issue of abortion in Northern Ireland is unfortunately not represented by their largest party as a YouGov poll in 2018 showed that 75% wanted a change in the abortion law. This disparity between public opinion and party policy represents a massive crisis of representation on the issue in Northern Ireland.
This High Court hearing is a victory in the fight for reproductive rights in Northern Ireland—a fight which, despite being long and arduous, has ultimately brought about important legislative change for women in Northern Ireland.