Britain’s Supreme Court expressed the view on Thursday (7 June) that Northern Ireland’s strict abortion law was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, but added it did not have the powers to make a formal declaration that the law should be changed, write Estelle Shirbon and Amanda Ferguson.
Abortion rights activists called the court’s ruling on the law’s incompatibility a “landmark decision” that would put pressure on the British government to act, while anti-abortion groups emphasised there was no requirement to do so.
Four out of seven Supreme Court justices who considered the issue found that the North’s current law, which bans abortion except when a mother’s life is at risk, was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.
However, a different four of the seven ruled that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, which had initiated legal proceedings to try to liberalise the law, did not have the right to bring the case.
“As such, the court does not have jurisdiction to make a declaration of incompatibility (with human rights law) in this case,” the court said in a summary of the decision.
The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission had argued that the law should be changed to allow abortions in cases where pregnancies were as a result of rape or incest, or in cases where the fetus had a fatal abnormality.
The Commission welcomed the court’s opinion that the law was incompatible with the European Convention but said it was disappointed in the ruling that it did not have sufficient powers to take the case.
“This is a landmark decision that I hope will lead to changes that will improve the lives of women in Northern Ireland and the care they receive. Change on this is needed and needed now,” Breedagh Hughes, Royal College of Midwives Director for Northern Ireland, said in a statement.
A Northern Irish woman gave evidence to the Supreme Court about having to travel abroad for a termination after being told her baby could not survive. Sarah Ewart said she intended to take a case to Belfast’s High Court to seek the declaration of incompatibility the Commission was unable to obtain.
Northern Ireland’s elected assembly has the authority to decide on any changes to its abortion laws. It voted against legislating in cases of fatal abnormality and rape in February 2016 and the assembly has not sat since the devolved government collapsed in January 2017.
Britain’s Northern Ireland minister has said she would like the law to be changed but that the matter should be decided by local politicians. The two main parties, which have been unable to restore the province’s power-sharing government, are also divided on the issue of abortion.
The main nationalist party, Sinn Fein, backs calls for some change in the law. It said the court’s dismissal was on a technicality and its judgement made clear that the status quo was untenable when it came to cases of fatal abnormality and rape.
However a lawmaker from the main Unionist party, which opposes liberalising abortion law and also props up the minority British government in London, said he was “delighted with the decision.”
May refuses to relax Northern Ireland #abortion rules
British Prime Minister Theresa May faces a showdown with ministers and lawmakers in her Conservative party after refusing to back reform of Northern Ireland’s highly restrictive abortion rules after neighbouring Ireland’s vote to liberalize its laws, writes Andrew MacAskill.
Voters in Ireland, a once deeply Catholic nation, backed the change by two-to-one, a far higher margin than any opinion poll in the run up to the vote had predicted.
The prime minister is facing calls from within her cabinet and from opposition parties to scrap the strict rules on abortion in Northern Ireland, bringing the law in the province in line with the rest of the United Kingdom.
Penny Mordaunt, Britain’s women and equalities minister, said the victory to legalise abortion should now bring change north of the Irish border.
“A historic and great day for Ireland and a hopeful one for Northern Ireland,” Mordaunt said. “That hope must be met.”
A spokeswoman for May said on Sunday (27 May) changing the rules should only be undertaken by a government in Northern Ireland, which has been without a devolved executive since January last year after a power-sharing agreement collapsed.
Northern Ireland has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe with even rape and fatal foetal abnormality not considered legal grounds for a termination. And unlike other parts of the United Kingdom, abortions are banned apart from when the life or mental health of the mother is in danger.
The penalty for undergoing or performing an unlawful abortion is life imprisonment.
Since the collapse of a power sharing administration in Northern Ireland, British officials have been taking major decisions in the region and this means the government could legislate directly despite health being a devolved issue.
The opposition Labour party called on the government to support legislation to extend abortion rights in Northern Ireland because women are being denied fundamental rights.
“This is an injustice. No woman in the UK should be denied access to a safe, legal abortion,” said Dawn Butler, Labour’s shadow minister for women and equalities.
More than 130 members of Britain’s parliament, including lawmakers in the ruling Conservative party, are prepared to back an amendment to a new domestic violence bill to allow abortions in Northern Ireland, the Sunday Times newspaper reported.
Anne Milton, an education minister, on Sunday urged the prime minister to allow a free vote in Britain’s parliament and said she thought there would be “a significant majority” in favour of liberalizing the abortion laws.
This creates a fresh headache for May who is already struggling to unite her top ministers over plans to leave the European Union and is facing the prospect of a series of rebellions in parliament over her Brexit plans.
Northern Ireland’s elected assembly has the right to bring its abortion laws in line with the rest of Britain, but voted against doing so in February 2016 and the assembly has not sat since the devolved government collapsed in January 2017.
Support for repealing Irish #abortion laws rises days from vote
Irish voters who favour liberalizing the country’s abortion laws increased their lead in two opinion polls published on Sunday, reversing a trend that suggested the race had begun to tighten ahead of the final days of campaigning, writes Padraic Halpin.
Voters will be asked on Friday (25 May) if they wish to overhaul one of the world’s most restrictive regimes that has long divided a once deeply Catholic nation. A complete ban was only lifted five years ago for cases where the mother’s life is in danger.
Those backing a ‘Yes’ vote have held a commanding lead since the referendum was announced in January and while still poised for victory, recent polls showed the ‘No’ side gaining as a large cohort of undecided voters began to make up their minds.
However, the Sunday Business Post/Red C poll found that 56 percent of those surveyed between 10 May and 16 May would vote to change the laws, up three points on last month, with 27% against, a rise of one, and 14% still undecided.
“Overall we expect the Yes vote to be in and around 56% to 58% at this stage and, barring any major interventions in the campaign over the next week, that is the most likely result,” said Red C chief executive Richard Colwell, predicting most ‘Don’t Knows’ would vote ‘No’.
“Still enough for the Yes camp to win the referendum, but closer than top line vote intentions suggest.”
If the referendum is carried, parliament will then be enabled to set the laws and Ireland’s minority government has proposed legislation that would introduce terminations with no restrictions up to 12 weeks into a pregnancy.
However, with politicians split on the issue, there is no guarantee the government’s proposal will prevail.
#Abortion activists cry foul as #Google pulls all referendum ads
Google announced plans on Wednesday (9 May) to suspend advertisements related to Ireland’s 25 May abortion referendum, sparking an angry response from anti-abortion activists who said the move would hurt them most, writes Graham Fahy.
The policy change comes a day after Facebook said it would no longer accept ads from outside the country that seek to influence the referendum.
Google went one step further and said it would not accept any ads related to the referendum, not just those from groups or individuals seeking to sway the vote.
Google’s policy change will be effective from 10 May and includes YouTube ads. It will remain in place until after the referendum.
Anti-abortion campaigners reacted with fury to the move, arguing it will deprive them of a key platform for their message and represents a bid to help those favouring a more liberal abortion regime.
“Online was the only platform available to the 'No' campaign to speak to voters directly. That platform is now being undermined in order to prevent the public from hearing the message from one side.”
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