(CN) — Northern Ireland’s strict abortion law violates the United Kingdom’s human rights commitments, a High Court judge in Northern Ireland ruled Thursday.
Unlike the rest of the U.K. and Ireland, Northern Ireland allows abortions only to protect a woman’s life or to prevent her from suffering serious risk. Abortion is not allowed in cases of rape, incest or when doctors determine an unborn child will die in the womb or shortly after birth.
As a consequence, women in Northern Ireland often go elsewhere to end their pregnancies.
The challenge to Northern Ireland’s law was brought by Sarah Ewart, a 29-year-old Belfast woman who traveled to London in 2013 for an abortion after doctors said her unborn child would die.
Justice Siobhan Keegan in Belfast ruled that Ewart’s testimony was compelling and showed how she had been affected by the law. Keegan noted that Ewart would have faced criminal charges for ending her pregnancy in Northern Ireland.
During court proceedings, the court heard that 13 lawful abortions were allowed in Northern Ireland last year and that 861 women traveled to England and Wales to end their pregnancies.
Keegan said she did not want to see other women face the kind of “trauma and pain” that Ewart was forced to endure in seeking an abortion in London.
“I cannot see that this would serve any benefit or it would be right to ask another woman to relive the trauma,” the judge said, according to media reports.
Keegan said the law breached the European Convention on Human Rights, which the U.K. has adopted.
Keegan’s ruling follows a similar judgment last year by the U.K. Supreme Court. But the Supreme Court ruling was limited because it involved a case brought by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, which the court said did not have legal standing as a victim. Keegan ruled that Ewart had standing.
Abortion is to become legal in Northern Ireland next year after the British Parliament voted in July for legislation to do just that. The British Parliament’s legislation, however, could be blocked if Northern Ireland’s regional government is restored by Oct. 21.
Since 2017, Northern Ireland’s assembly has been suspended due to disagreements between the two major parties in the region’s power-sharing government.
Abortion is among the sources of the intense political wrangling between the region’s two major parties. The Democratic Unionist Party, supported mostly by conservative Protestants, opposes abortion while Sinn Féin, a party backed by Catholics, is in favor of allowing abortions.
With the pending legalization of abortion, church leaders in Northern Ireland are urging the DUP to seek a compromise with Sinn Féin and restore the Northern Irish assembly in order to stop abortions from becoming legal.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)