U.K. Supreme Court Dismisses Challenge to Northern Ireland’s Abortion Laws

Pro-choice campaigners hold placards outside the Houses of Parliament in London / Getty Images
June 7, 2018

The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom dismissed a legal challenge against Northern Ireland’s current abortion laws, but in doing so, a number of the deciding justices made clear they supported the commission's general opposition. 

The case was decided by a panel of seven justices who ruled the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission lacked standing to challenge the statutes, the Associated Press reports. Nevertheless, several of the justices expressed their belief that Northern Ireland’s laws violate human rights legislation.

Four justices specified prohibitions on abortion in cases of rape, incest, and fatal fetal abnormality are inconsistent with European human rights laws, according to the Guardian. A fifth agreed with it was incompatible in cases of fatal foetal abnormality.

While acknowledging the court had "no jurisdiction in these proceedings," Lord Mance, who conveyed the decision, said he "would have concluded, without real hesitation at the end of the day, that the current Northern Ireland law is incompatible with article 8 of the [European human rights] convention insofar as it prohibits abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, rape and incest but not insofar as it prohibits abortion in cases of serious foetal abnormality." 

The justices’ assertions are non-binding since the case was dismissed; however, Lord Kerr, who was on the panel, said the decision "must nevertheless be worthy of close consideration."

Advocates of liberalized abortion laws in Northern Ireland are optimistic despite the dismissal. "This is a resounding win for the women and girls of Northern Ireland who have been subject to inhumane laws for too long," said Caoilfhionn Gallagher, who represented Humanists U.K.

The court’s ruling comes at the end of a tumultuous two-week period in the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland. Irish citizens voted on May 25 to repeal the Eighth Amendment of the country’s constitution, which had protected the lives of unborn children. Under current law, abortion is permitted in Northern Ireland only when there is a real and substantial risk of loss of the woman's life, including from a risk of suicide.

There have been mounting calls for Prime Minister Theresa May and Parliament to take action against Northern Ireland’s restrictive laws in the aftermath of Ireland’s vote. Earlier this week, the House of Commons debated how to approach the matter, and May has privately told Conservative members of parliament she believes the matter should be left to the Northern Irish government. The justices’ criticisms of Northern Ireland’s statutes, however, may increase pressure on the prime minister to act.

Published under: Abortion , United Kingdom