U.K. Court Ruling Leaves Northern Ireland Abortion Law Unchanged

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The U.K. Supreme Court ruled Thursday it had no right to decide whether Northern Ireland’s strict policy limiting abortions breached European human-rights laws, heading off a potential fallout between U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative Party and her alliance partners.

The court ruled that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission didn’t have the power to bring the case. However, a majority of the seven judges agreed that the law breached the European Convention of Human Rights in cases of rape, incest and fetal abnormality.

In Northern Ireland, women are only permitted to terminate their pregnancy when their life is in danger or the pregnancy runs a serious risk to their mental or physical health. In 2016, more than 700 women traveled from Northern Ireland to England and Wales to get an abortion.

The ruling on a technicality will come as a relief for U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, who previously said that the province should decide its own abortion policy. A ruling the other way would’ve risked upsetting her fragile alliance with the province’s Democratic Unionist Party.

"Admiration and sympathy," for the women who came forward to give evidence in the suit "do not provide an answer to the complex questions which arose on this appeal," Justice Brian Kerr said in summarizing the ruling. "A dispassionate analysis of the legal issues was needed. But the nature of their suffering and the trauma of their experiences were by no means irrelevant to the resolution of those difficult legal issues."

Pressure to change the law in the province has increased since the Republic of Ireland voted by a landslide to liberalize abortion laws last month.

Many Conservative lawmakers say that the law in Northern Ireland should be brought into line with the rest of the U.K., but DUP leader Arlene Foster is committed to maintaining the province’s strict abortion laws.

"We took this case to bring greater clarity to the law and we welcome the court’s decision," Les Allamby, chief commissioner of the NIHRC, said. "For over five years now, the commission has exhausted every legal hurdle."

May has said that the abortion issue should be decided by Northern Ireland’s devolved government. U.K. lawmakers held an emergency debate on the issue on Tuesday.

Northern Ireland hasn’t had a government since a power-sharing agreement between the DUP and Sinn Fein collapsed in January 2017 over the DUP leadership’s role in a costly renewable energy initiative.

The human-rights commission argued that the province’s abortion laws were incompatible with the ECHR rules, which protects the right to terminate pregnancies in cases of fatal fetal abnormalities, rape and incest.

In England, Scotland and Wales, an abortion can be legally carried out up to a 24-week gestational limit or later if the mother’s health is threatened or there is a substantial risk the baby will have serious disabilities.

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