In a historic ruling, a High Court in Belfast, Northern Ireland has ruled that the country’s anti-abortion laws violate human rights. The current law, which forbids abortions in the case of fatal fetal abnormalities, rape or incest, imposes, according to the judge, “an intolerable burden” on women who have to travel to England for abortion care.

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Both Northern Ireland’s Criminal Justice Act and its Offenses Against Persons Act ban abortions except in extreme cases where the pregnant person’s life is deemed to be in danger. A challenge to the law was brought this year by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission.

The High Court agreed that the law is too harsh on exactly the wrong people, with Justice Mark Horner wrote that the law restricts the human rights of pregnant women while failing to actually protect the life of fetuses. In the case of fetal abnormalities, he wrote, there’s no life to protect:

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When the foetus leaves the womb, it cannot survive independently. It is doomed. There is nothing to weigh in the balance. There is no human life to protect.Furthermore, no evidence has been put before the court that a substantial section of Northern Ireland’s community, never mind a majority, requires a mother to carry such a foetus to full term.

As for restrictions on women who have been the victims of rape or incest, he called those “the grossest intrusion on a woman’s autonomy in the vilest of circumstances,” adding: “Any resulting pregnancy is not a voluntary act but one which was forced upon the woman.” Forcing those people to travel abroad, he wrote, imposes “an intolerable financial and mental burden on those least able to bear it.”

An estimated 800 women are believed to have left Northern Ireland in 2013 to obtain abortions in England, including one 13-year-old girl who was the victim of incest. One of those women was Sarah Ewart, who has spoken publicly about having to abort after learning her fetus had anencephaly, a devastating condition in which the brain doesn’t fully develop and the skull doesn’t close. Infants typically don’t survive longer than hours or days after birth.

Ewart testified before the High Court about having to obtain an abortion in London. In a statement to the Belfast Telegraph, expressed her relief at the decision:

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“I hope that today’s ruling means that I, and other women like me, will no longer have to go through the pain I experienced, of having to travel to England, away from the care of the doctors and midwife who knew me, to access the healthcare I needed.

“I, and many women like me have been failed by our politicians. First, they left me with no option but to go to England for medical care. Then, by their refusal to change the law, they left me with no option but to go to the courts on my and other women’s behalf.

“I am an ordinary woman who suffered a very personal family tragedy, which the law in Northern Ireland turned into a living nightmare.”

However, the ruling doesn’t necessarily mean the laws in the country will change, at least not without a protracted fight. The country’s Department of Justice may still appeal the ruling. They have six weeks to decide.


Contact the author at anna.merlan@jezebel.com.

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Sarah Ewart. Screengrab via YouTube/BBCNolan