Politics

The Guardian view on Northern Ireland and abortion: the mounting demand for change | Editorial

A judgment from the UK’s supreme court adds to the already overwhelming case for reforming oppressive laws

The moral case for the reform of Northern Ireland’s harsh abortion laws, which forbid terminations even in the case of rape or fatal foetal abnormalities, has long been clear. But the sweeping victory for reform in the Irish abortion referendum last month made it starker than ever. The logical case is obvious: the restrictions do not prevent but displace abortions, with women travelling across the Irish Sea to end their pregnancies. The political case is equally evident: poll after poll has shown that voters in Northern Ireland believe the law must change. Now the supreme court has laid out the legal case.

By a narrow majority, the judges of the UK’s highest court ruled that it had no jurisdiction to consider the legal challenge brought by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission because there was no actual or potential victim involved. (A Belfast woman now plans to challenge the law in her home city’s high court.) They could have stopped there. Instead, the majority went on to state that the current law is incompatible with the right to respect private and family life, guaranteed by the European convention on human rights, in prohibiting abortion in cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality. Two of the seven concluded that it was also incompatible with the right not to be subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment. Technically speaking, this is not a declaration of incompatibility. But its effect is to make such a declaration unnecessary.

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