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Northern Ireland's Abortion Law Violates Human Rights, Court Rules

A High Court judge in Belfast has ruled that Northern Ireland's abortion restrictions are incompatible with human rights.

Currently, abortion is permitted only when the life of the mother is under threat or her long-term health would be compromised by carrying the fetus to term. Monday's decision will put pressure on lawmakers to allow for the procedure in some other instances.

Judge Mark Horner said that banning the procedure in the case of rape, incest, and when the fetus has fatal abnormalities violates the European Convention on Human Rights.

The BBC notes that Northern Ireland "has been a place apart within the United Kingdom since the 1967 Abortion Act." The news service adds that:

"[The act] allowed terminations in England, Scotland and Wales at up to 24 weeks of the pregnancy on a variety of grounds, including having abnormalities that could lead to a child being 'seriously handicapped.'

"Even if this judgement is put into effect — and it is likely to be appealed — the law would still be stricter in Northern Ireland."

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission brought the legal challenge.

Les Allamby, the group's commissioner, said in a statement, "Today's result is historic, and will be welcomed by many of the vulnerable women and girls who have been faced with these situations. It was important for the Commission to take this challenge in its own name, in order to protect women and girls in Northern Ireland and we are delighted with the result."

Northern Ireland's abortion policy is governed by the 1861 Offences Against The Person Act, which imposes a potential penalty of life in prison for anyone convicted of terminating a pregnancy when the life or health of the mother is not at risk. In 2013, more than 800 women and girls from Northern Ireland traveled to hospitals in Britain for abortions, The New York Times reports.

Amnesty International, which lauded the high court's ruling, said in a statement: "Northern Ireland's laws on abortion date back to the nineteenth century and carry the harshest criminal penalties in Europe."

Northern Ireland's Attorney General John Larkin has said he is considering grounds to challenge the decision. The Department of Justice, the BBC says, has six weeks to appeal to the ruling.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alexandra Starr