The High Court in Belfast ruled Thursday that Northern Ireland’s strict abortion law violates the UK’s human rights commitments, the BBC reported. The ruling comes after Belfast resident Sarah Ewart was refused an abortion after prenatal testing revealed a fetal abnormality.
Abortion law in Northern Ireland is much more restrictive than the rest of the UK, as the 1967 Abortion Act, which expanded grounds for abortion in England, Scotland and Wales, was never extended to the province.
The High Court judge defended the ruling, saying it was not just to ask other women to relive the “trauma” Ewart underwent in being denied an abortion in her country.
Mrs. Justice Siobhan Keegan called Ewart’s testimony “compelling”.
“My overall conclusion is that the applicant has standing to bring a claim of this nature on the basis of the evidence she has provided,” the judge said, according to ITV News. “She has been affected by the current law in that she has had to travel to seek an abortion in desperate circumstances.”
The judge also cited a 2018 Supreme Court ruling that abortion law in Northern Ireland was incompatible with Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. That ruling, however, failed after the Supreme Court failed to identify “any unlawful act or any potential victim of it.”
Northern Ireland’s current law only permits abortions if a woman’s life is at risk or if there is a risk of permanent and serious damage to her mental or physical health. Abortion is not permitted in cases of rape, incest or diagnosis of a “fatal fetal abnormality,” making it one of the strictest laws in the world.
Ewart called Thursday’s ruling “a turning point for women” in a larger push to combat “outdated laws.”
Members of the pro-life group, Precious Life, were present for Thursday’s ruling.
“It’s a very sad day that the court has denied the right to life for unborn children,” director Bernie Smyth told ITV News.
So where does the law stand?
In July, Westminster MPs voted for legislation that will expand abortion law and legalize same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland if devolution is not restored by Oct. 21.
Northern Ireland has been without a devolved government, which confers separate decision-making powers to representatives for voters in the province, for almost three years. Failure to restore devolution would grant Westminster greater decision-making power in historically conservative Northern Ireland.
Given the impending deadline, Justice Keegan did not make a formal declaration of Northern Ireland’s incompatibility with UK human rights commitments, as devolution is very unlikely at this point.