UK Supreme Court Recognizes that Northern Ireland’s Abortion Ban Contravenes Human Rights Law and Requires Radical Reconsideration

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(GENEVA) The Center for Reproductive Rights welcomes today’s recognition by the UK Supreme Court that Northern Ireland’s highly restrictive abortion law contravenes the European Convention on Human Rights.

Although for procedural reasons the Court did not issue a declaration of incompatibility, the Court recognized that the law infringes the human rights of women and girls by banning abortion in situations of fatal foetal anomaly, rape and incest. The Court urged lawmakers to undertake a radical reconsideration of the law as soon as possible. 

Said Leah Hoctor, Regional Director for Europe at the Center for Reproductive Rights:

“Today’s judgement from the UK Supreme Court is an indictment of Northern Ireland’s restrictive abortion law. Although the Court considered that it was unable to issue a declaration of incompatibility, it has clearly recognised the harm that the near total prohibition on abortion is causing women and girls.

“When women and girls are denied access to safe abortion care in their home jurisdiction their human rights are violated. Today’s judgement is ground-breaking in its recognition that legal bans on abortion contravene the European Convention.

“We welcome the Court’s judgement urging lawmakers to undertake radical reform of the Northern Irish law. Legislative change to ensure that women and girls can access safe abortion care in Northern Ireland is needed without delay to protect their human rights.” 

The Center for Reproductive Rights intervened as a third party before the Supreme Court and was represented by Lord Goldsmith QC of Debevoise &amp, Plimpton LLP.



Abortion is prohibited in Northern Ireland except where carried out to preserve a woman’s life. In all other circumstances, including where there is a fatal foetal impairment or the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, it is a serious criminal offence. As a result, every year hundreds of women from Northern Ireland travel to England to access legal abortion care.  

In 2014 the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission initiated legal proceedings seeking a declaration that the law is incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. Today the UK Supreme Court issued judgement in relation to those claims.

While a majority of the Court recognized that by prohibiting abortion in situations of rape, incest and fatal foetal impairment Northern Irish law contravenes the European Convention on Human Rights, a separate majority also held that the Commission did not have legal standing to bring the relevant claims.

For this procedural reason a majority of the Court considered itself unable to issue a declaration of incompatibility. However, it noted that women and girls, who have been denied access to abortion care in Northern Ireland as a result of the legal prohibition on abortion, would have standing to successfully challenge the law and obtain a declaration of incompatibility. The Court underlined that the restrictive nature of Northern Ireland’s abortion law is untenable and called on lawmakers to undertake swift and radical reform, stressing that it is causing women and girls in Northern Ireland immense suffering in contravention of the right to privacy as enshrined in the Convention.


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