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Belfast court forces change to Northern Ireland’s abortion law

Belfast's High Court (PA)

The High Court in Belfast has ruled that Northern Ireland’s abortion legislation is in breach of human rights laws.

In a landmark ruling the court declared that abortion should be available in the case of foetal abnormality or rape.

The 1967 Abortion Act does not currently apply in the province, where abortion is only permitted when the mother’s life is in danger.

More than 800 women travelled from Northern Ireland to England or Wales to receive abortions in 2013.

Among them was Sarah Ewart, who had an abortion after being told her baby had no chance of survival, and who was one of a number of people to make submissions to the Belfast High Court.

Life charity Northern Ireland spokeswoman Marion Woods said: “The Northern Ireland law on abortion reflects the democratic will of the people of Northern Ireland expressed through their elected political representatives in the Assembly. This case therefore represents an attempt to change the law against the will of the people of Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Assembly.

“The majority of people in Northern Ireland continue to believe in the intrinsic value of human life from conception. Human life begins in the womb. How then can the right to protection of human beings in the womb be incompatible with human rights? Even if an individual’s human rights under Article 8 is engaged, it does not trump a child’s right to life. The first and most fundamental human right should be the right to life.”

Meanwhile, Liam Gibson, the Northern Ireland development officer for the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, which intervened in the case, said: “The ruling by Judge Mark Horner is dangerously flawed. The judge misrepresented the protection of children before birth in case law and statute law in Northern Ireland. He also confused the separate legal issues of viability and the capacity to be born alive.”

Mr Gibson continued: “Not one universal human rights treaty recognises a right to abortion. However, the right to life is shared by all members of the human family. The Declaration on the Rights of the Child (DRC) acknowledges that ‘the child, by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth’. The DRC explicitly states that the need for such special safeguards is ‘recognised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’.”

Melanie McDonagh at The Spectator commented on the anti-democratic approach to legalising abortion in Northern Ireland. She wrote: “This judgment is plainly at odds with the opinion of the democratic forum in the north, the Northern Ireland Assembly, where every attempt to have abortion introduced upfront, in law, has been thrown out. Instead abortion seems likely to be brought in through the courts, that weaselly, undemocratic method of choice by the human rights lobby, whose concept of human rights never seems to extend to prenatal life.”

In a statement, the Catholic Bishops of Northern Ireland said they were “shocked and disturbed” by the High Court’s decision.

“Our day-to-day pastoral experience teaches us that even in the hardest of hard cases society cannot forget that human life is sacred and always deserving of our utmost protection, compassion and care. The Catholic Church teaches that the duty to care for and protect human life extends equally to a mother and her unborn child in all circumstances,” the statement said.

“Having met with many parents whose unborn child with a life limiting condition has lived for hours, days, weeks and even years bringing immense happiness, we are profoundly shocked and disturbed at the judge’s words that such children are ‘doomed’. The Judge compounds this by saying that ‘there is no human life to protect’. By any human and moral standard these children are persons and our duty to respect and protect their right to life does not change because of any Court judgement.”

The statement added: “It is profoundly disquieting that the decision of the High Court in Belfast has effectively weighed up one life against another and said to our society that the life of some children is more worthy of our protection, love and care than others.

“Vulnerable and innocent children who suffer from a life limiting condition, and children who have been conceived as a result of the trauma of a sexual crime for which they bear no responsibility, will no longer be afforded the protection of the law to vindicate their inherent right to life. To deliberately and intentionally take the life of an innocent person continues to be gravely morally wrong in all circumstances.”