In Brief

Why did the Supreme Court uphold Northern Ireland’s strict abortion laws?

Majority of judges reject campaigners' challenge, but say the existing legislation is incompatible with human rights law

The Supreme Court has rejected an appeal by human rights campaigners challenging Northern Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws.

Unlike in other parts of the UK which are covered by the 1967 Abortion Act, a termination in Northern Ireland is only permitted if a women’s life, or permanent mental or physical health is at risk.

What did the court say?

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) had appealed to the court on the grounds the current law was in breach of the European Court of Human Rights – a claim which was narrowly defeated on technical grounds because the proceedings did not involve an identified victim.

However, in a hugely symbolic ruling for pro-choice campaigners, a majority of judges went on to add that Northern Ireland’s existing abortion law was incompatible with human rights law in cases of fatal foetal abnormality and sexual crime.

What happens next?

Although the decision is not a formal declaration of incompatibility, because the case has technically been dismissed, “the judgment triggered fresh calls for the government and politicians in Northern Ireland to deal with the issue” says The Guardian.

Last month, the Republic of Ireland overwhelmingly voted to repeal the country’s strict abortion laws, leaving Northern Ireland as the only part of Britain or Ireland with such a restrictive regime.

The vote piled further pressure on Theresa May to intervene and force a referendum on relaxing the laws in Northern Ireland – something she has rejected, arguing it is the responsibility of the devolved assembly in Stormont.

Where does this leave Northern Ireland?

“While the case's dismissal means the government is not obliged to change the law” says the BBC’s Marie-Louise Connolly, BBC News NI health correspondent, “the seven judges have given a strong nod that reform is needed”.

“However, those who argue the law should stay the same will take comfort that the majority of judges agreed the NIHRC didn't have the right to bring the case” she adds.

Sinn Fein, which backs calls for some change to the law, said the court’s judgement made clear that the status quo was untenable when it came to cases of fatal abnormality and rape.

However, its Democratic Unionist (DUP) rivals hailed the ruling a victory for pro-lifers.

It means that with Westminster unable or unwilling intervene, a power-sharing deal nowhere in sight and Northern Ireland’s two main parties bitterly divided on the issue, changes to the law still seem a long way off.

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