The North’s justice minister is to appeal against a landmark court ruling on Northern Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws. He is concerned it has inadvertently paved the way for terminations on demand.
David Ford said there was a need to clarify Mr Justice Horner’s judgement, which declared elements of the law incompatible with human rights legislation.
The ruling focused on ending the ban on women accessing abortion in cases of sexual crime, or after a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality (FFA).
However, Mr Ford warned that the judge’s words could be interpreted as advocating a blanket relaxation of abortion legislation. Northern Ireland’s attorney general, John Larkin, is also appealing against the judgement, but on different grounds. Mr Larkin is appealing against the entirety of the ruling, but Mr Ford, whose department supports a law change in cases of FFA, is challenging specific elements.
While Northern Ireland’s laws on terminations are more restrictive than Britain’s, the justice minister says the judgement could turn that on its head and the region would then have the UK’s most liberal abortion laws.
“The judgment from the [North’s] high court does not fully clarify the law, and potentially leaves open the possibility there could be abortion on demand in Northern Ireland, on an even wider basis than is the case in the rest of the United Kingdom,” said Mr Ford.
The minister’s departmental lawyers became aware of the issue during detailed scrutiny of the judgement.
He said it focused on a section of the ruling. Justice Horner stated that an unborn child’s right to life, under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), does not apply until the foetus could viably survive outside the womb.
The minister said this could be interpreted as giving an expectant mother a free rein to abort before the point of viability, which is usually estimated at 22 to 24 weeks. While there is a similar legal limit for abortions elsewhere in the UK — namely 24 weeks — the British department of justice contends some restrictions that apply in the UK would not necessarily apply under Justice Horner’s ruling.
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