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UK Supreme Court expresses disapproval over Northern Ireland abortion law

[JURIST] The UK Supreme Court [official website] on Thursday indicated disapproval [judgment, PDF] of Northern Ireland's strict abortion law [text, PDF], though ultimately dismissed the appeal brought by challengers of the legislation.

The legal proceedings were initiated by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) [advocacy website], who argue that the existing law—which lists having an abortion as a criminal offense punishable with up to 14 years in prison—contradicts the European Convention on Human Rights [text, PDF]. The appeal argues the law should be changed to allow abortions in cases where pregnancies are a result of rape or incest, or in the cases where the fetus has a fatal abnormality.

The court agreed that Northern Ireland's abortion laws are "disproportionate and incompatible," with human rights legislation, as stated in the court's press summary [text, PDF]. That said, because the proceedings were brought in the name of the NIHRC, rather than the name of a particular victim, the court ruled that the case lacked the sufficient grounds and "[a]s such, the court does not have jurisdiction to make a declaration of incompatibility (with human rights law) in this case."

Though not a clear-cut win for the NIHRC, the court's concession of the harshness of the existing law gives campaigners prospect for change. "This is a landmark decision that I hope will lead to changes that will improve the lives of women in Northern Ireland and the care they receive. Change on this is needed and needed now," said Breedagh Hughes, Royal College of Midwives Director for Northern Ireland.

Last year, in a case [JURIST report] involving a mother and her pregnant, 15-year old daughter, the UK Supreme Court ruled that women in Northern Ireland were not entitled to abortions under England's National Health Services [official website]. In April the Belfast City Council [official website] voted to decriminalize abortion [JURIST report].

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