NI abortion law “needs radical reconsideration” says Deputy President of the Supreme Court

On 26th May 2018 the referendum in Ireland to repeal the eighth amendment was met with an overwhelming “yes” majority. The final result was 66.4% yes to 33.6% no.

The eighth amendment stated that there is equal right to life of the pregnant mother and unborn child. Once legislation has been approved, abortion in Ireland will be legal in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, rape or incest. It will, however, still be subject to medical approval.

What is the position in Northern Ireland?

Abortion is currently lawful in Northern Ireland only in cases of threat to life or a threat to health which is serious and long-term. In other circumstances abortion remains a criminal offence. In 2013 the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (“NIHRC”) brought judicial review proceedings, challenging the compatibility of the law on abortion in Northern Ireland with UK human rights commitments. In October 2017 the case was heard before the Supreme Court.  The Supreme Court handed down Judgment on 7th June 2018 and concluded that the NIHRC did not have the legal standing to take such a case. The Judges did, however, find that the current abortion law in Northern Ireland is incompatible with EU Law in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, rape or sex crime.

The Deputy President of the Supreme Court, Lord Mance, said that “the present law clearly needs radical reconsideration.”

Decisions on abortion law are currently the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Assembly, which has been suspended for more than a year. To date the UK government has said it will not intervene on the issue.

This is a highly contentious issue and no doubt will continue to be hard fought by both sides of the debate.