Update: Anti-abortion groups welcome court ruling on NI abortion laws as victory for democracy

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) has lost a Supreme Court challenge against existing abortion laws in the North.

Update: Anti-abortion groups welcome court ruling on NI abortion laws as victory for democracy

Latest: The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) has lost a Supreme Court challenge against existing abortion laws in the North. .

A majority of the seven-strong panel of Supreme Court justices ruled  said, however, that Northern Ireland’s abortion laws are incompatible with human rights legislation.

In commentary on the ruling, Deputy Supreme Court president Lord Mance said the present law "clearly needs radical consideration".

Giving his opinion, Lord Kerr went on to praise three "enormously brave women" who gave "unsparing accounts" of having to deal with a pregnancy where they knew their babies were "doomed to die".

Lord Kerr said that, where it is clear a foetus is suffering from a fatal abnormality, there is "no justification" in inflicting on the mother the "appalling prospect" of having to carry it to term.

He said: "Put simply, the balance cannot come down in favour of a law which imposes that experience on a woman."

Bernadette Smyth, director of Northern Ireland-based anti-abortion campaign group Precious Life, said: "What happened here today was upholding democracy. This court made a ruling that this court has no right to make decisions for Northern Ireland.

"Regardless of their opinions, this is a law in Northern Ireland and that is where these decisions should be made."

"This is about the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission misusing public funding. Stormont has the right to make legislation and this law was debated in 2016 and the decision was not to change that law. A consultation was undertaken and the people said a change should not be made.

"All children's with disabilities should be protected. Our laws matter because every life matters."

In a statement, Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission chief commissioner Les Allamby also welcomed the decision and suggested the highest court in the UK had agreed with the Commission that Northern Ireland's laws on Termination of Pregnancy are incompatible with human rights.

"We took this case to bring greater clarity to the law and we welcome the Court's decision.

"The Commission took this case to support and protect women and girls in Northern Ireland and we will continue to do this by whatever means we can. There is a much greater open public debate about the issue and the need for reform.

"The law now needs to change to stop women and girls from further anxiety and suffering. In the absence of the NI Executive and Assembly it falls to the UK Government to make this change and it must act without delay.

"The commission is disappointed that the Court did not support the arguments that we had sufficient powers to take the case in our own name. We acted in this way in order prevent any woman or girl from having to face the burden of doing so.

Sarah Ewart, who travelled from Northern Ireland for a termination in England in 2013, was one of three cases referred to in the Supreme Court judgment.

Speaking outside the court, she said: "I, and we, will not stop until we can get our own medical care in our own hospitals at home.

"To Theresa May I would say 'We need change and help. This is a medical procedure that we need in our hospitals with our own medical team. Please help us now'."

Grainne Teggart and Sarah Ewart arrive at the UK Supreme Court today. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire.
Grainne Teggart and Sarah Ewart arrive at the UK Supreme Court today. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire.

The Center for Reproductive Rights welcomed today’s ruling, with the group's Regional Director for Europe Leah Hoctor calling it "an indictment of Northern Ireland’s restrictive abortion law".

“When women and girls are denied access to safe abortion care in their home jurisdiction their human rights are violated. Today’s judgement is ground-breaking in its recognition that legal bans on abortion contravene the European Convention."

“We welcome the Court’s judgement urging lawmakers to undertake radical reform of the Northern Irish law. Legislative change to ensure that women and girls can access safe abortion care in Northern Ireland is needed without delay to protect their human rights.”

The Center for Reproductive Rights intervened as a third party before the Supreme Court.

The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) also welcomed the decision to dismiss the case.

Liam Gibson, SPUC's Development Officer for Northern Ireland said: "The accusation that Northern Ireland’s law is incompatible with Article 8 is no more than the opinion of the majority of judges: it is in no way a binding judgement.

"While we welcome the recognition of the value of the lives of people with serious disabilities, it is appalling that judges in the UK Supreme Court do not place the same value on the lives of children with life-limiting conditions or who have been conceived through sexual crimes.

"The judges considered that no unborn child should be regarded as a person, but all human beings are persons: there are no ‘subhuman’ human beings. Nor is abortion good for women."

Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley, responding to an urgent question in the House of Commons, said: "The Government is carefully considering the judgment and its implications."

Update - 9.55am: UK Supreme Court dismisses appeal over Northern Ireland abortion law

Campaigners have lost a Supreme Court appeal over the legality of Northern Ireland's strict abortion law, despite a majority of justices declaring it is "incompatible" with human rights laws.

A majority of a seven-strong panel of justices in London ruled the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission had no legal standing to bring its challenge against the abortion law.

But, by a majority ruling, the judges expressed the "clear opinion" that the current legislation is "incompatible" with European human rights laws in the cases of fatal foetal abnormality, rape and incest.

The justices said the Supreme Court "has no jurisdiction" in the proceedings to make a declaration of incompatibility or to strike down law.

During proceedings in October last year, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) told the court the current law criminalises "exceptionally vulnerable" women and girls and subjects them to "inhuman and degrading" treatment.

A QC representing the commission argued that human rights were being breached, with those affected being forced to go through "physical and mental torture".

The court was asked to rule that a prohibition on abortions where a pregnancy arises from rape or incest, or "involves a serious foetal abnormality", is unlawful.

Submissions were also made at the Supreme Court by a number of bodies, including seven of the UK's leading reproductive rights organisations, Humanists UK, Bishops of the Roman Catholic Dioceses in Northern Ireland, the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children and Amnesty International.

Unlike other parts of the UK, the 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland.

Earlier: UK Supreme Court to rule whether NI's abortion law violates human rights

The UK's Supreme Court is due to rule later today on whether women in Northern Ireland who are denied abortions are having their human rights violated.

The result of last month's referendum on the Eight Amendment has put pressure on politicians to ensure that Northern Ireland reviews its own laws.

Today, seven British judges will rule on whether it is unlawful to ban terminations when a pregnancy arises from rape or incest.

The ruling by the panel of judges, headed by the court's president Lady Hale, follows a hearing last year.

During proceedings in October, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) told the court the current law criminalises "exceptionally vulnerable" women and girls and subjects them to "inhuman and degrading" treatment.

The NIHRC claims the law's effect on women is incompatible with rights under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

Abortion is illegal except where a woman's life is at risk or there is a permanent or serious danger to her mental or physical health.

Anyone who unlawfully carries out an abortion could be jailed for life.

An emergency debate on the issue was held in the House of Commons on Tuesday.

The UK Government has resisted calls to step in and legislate amid the ongoing powersharing impasse in Northern Ireland, insisting that any decision on abortion in the region has to be taken by locally elected politicians at Stormont.

Grainne Teggart, Amnesty's Northern Ireland campaigns manager, said in a statement: "If the court rules that Northern Ireland's abortion ban breaches women's rights, there will be no excuses left for Theresa May - the UK Government will be forced to fulfil its human rights responsibilities and make things equal for the women of Northern Ireland.

"The Supreme Court judges have a unique chance to put right centuries of human rights abuse in Northern Ireland. We hope they take it."

- Digital Desk and PA

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