The High Court of Northern Ireland ruled today that the country’s attempt to restrict abortion is a breach of human rights. The High Court has the authority to strike down any laws it deems to be incompatible with human rights.
The case was brought by Sarah Ewart, 29, who was denied an abortion when doctors discovered at her 20-week ultrasound that her preborn daughter, Ella, had anencephaly, a neural tube defect where a baby develops without a portion of the brain, skull, and scalp. Babies with the condition live from a few hours to a few weeks after their birth. In Ewart’s case, doctors described her baby as “incompatible with life.”
Ewart decided to seek a late-term abortion, and was “shocked” when she was unable to have that done in her home country, but would have to go across the channel to England. When she returned to her country, she filed a case about the “horror” she endured having to seek a late-term abortion abroad instead of at home.
Since the Republic of Ireland struck down its constitutional amendment protecting the unborn and subsequently legalized abortion last year, the pressure has mounted for Northern Ireland to liberalize its pro-life laws, where abortion is currently an offense except if a mother’s life as at risk. In addition to Ewart’s court case, there has been pressure from outside groups despite a pro-life resistance.
In July of this year, Westminster passed a law to forcibly legalize abortion in Northern Ireland, due to the fact that the country’s government hasn’t met since 2017 on account of an impasse and falling-out between the two major ruling parties. Although abortion was supposed to be a “devolved” issue that only Northern Ireland could legislate and which Westminster had no authority to touch, the UK government found a loophole and used the passage of the abortion law as a threat to force the Northern Ireland government to meet before a deadline of October 21st, at which point the abortion law would go into effect.
In response to these heavy-handed measures, church leaders from the Church of Ireland, the Roman Catholic Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Methodist Church, and the Irish Council of Churches put forth a joint statement this week expressing their “grave concern” about the way in which abortion was about to be legalized and saying that that current measures could remove all protection for unborn babies up to 28 weeks, and could potentially cause a five months’ vacuum where unregulated abortion could exist while the procedure would be legal but before any regulations could be passed.
They referenced the fact that Northern Ireland has one of the most recent referenda on abortion when a measure to liberalize abortion laws failed in 2016. “There is no evidence that these changes reflect the will of the people affected by them, as they were not consulted. They go far beyond the ‘hard cases’ some have been talking about.”
The statement also called on the government to reconvene, to which one of the major ruling parties responded positively. However with the High Court’s ruling today, it is unclear what recourse Northern Ireland has for the preborn at this point in time.
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