Belfast High Court rules abortion permissible in certain cases

Landmark judgment applicable to cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality

The Belfast High Court has issued a landmark judgment which would make abortion legal in Northern Ireland in cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality.

Mr Justice Mark Horner held that abortion legislation in Northern Ireland breached Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. He ruled it failed to provide an exception to the prohibition of abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality at any time during pregnancy or where the pregnancy is the result of sexual crime – up to the date when the foetus is capable of existing independently of the mother.

The judge supported the application by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission to liberalise abortion legislation in relation to rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality.

The commission had also sought to make abortion permissible in Northern Ireland in cases of “serious malformation of the foetus” but this was rejected by Mr Justice Horner.


The judge has asked the three parties in the case – the commission, the North's Department of Justice and Attorney General John Larkin QC – to consider whether the ruling can be applied under current legislation or whether it will have to be referred to the Northern Assembly.

Mr Larkin said he was “profoundly disappointed” at the decision and was now considering “the grounds for appeal”.

Abortion is legal in Northern Ireland where there is a threat to the life of the woman or where there is a risk of a serious and adverse effect on her physical or mental health which is either long term or permanent. The 1967 British Abortion Act does not apply in Northern Ireland.

The commission's head, Les Allamby, described the judgment as "historic" and a "landmark" ruling.

“In taking this case, we sought to change the law so that women and girls in Northern Ireland have the choice of accessing a termination of pregnancy locally in circumstances of fatal foetal abnormalities, rape or incest without being criminalised for doing so,” he said.

“We are pleased that today that the High Court has held that the current law is incompatible with human rights and has ruled in the commission’s favour.”

Vulnerable women

Mr Allamby said the result would be “welcomed by many of the vulnerable women and girls who have been faced with these situations”.

He added: “It was important for the commission to take this challenge in its own name in order to protect women and girls in Northern Ireland and we are delighted with the result.”

The commission had successfully applied for a review of the existing abortion law last February, leading to its formal case opening in June.

A number of groups made submissions in the case, including the Family Planning Association, the Alliance for Choice and Amnesty International who want abortion law liberalised, and the Northern Catholic bishops, the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children and Precious Life who favour the status quo.

Sarah Ewart also welcomed the judgment. While she was not in the court, her mother Jane Christie said she cried tears of relief when she learned of the decision.

Ms Ewart came to public prominence in 2013 when she was denied an abortion in Northern Ireland. Her unborn baby had been diagnosed with anencephaly, a severe brain condition which meant the baby would die in the womb or was only likely to live for a very short time after birth. She had a termination in England at 20 weeks.

Bernadette Smyth of Precious Life urged the Attorney General to appeal the decision. "The right to life is granted neither by judges nor politicians, but it is their duty to protect it. We cannot and will not accept a ruling that is so morally wrong in denying the fundamental rights of the most vulnerable human beings in society," she said.

“Precious Life will make a further submission in this case and will not give up in our efforts to ensure every unborn child is protected in Northern Ireland,” added Ms Smyth.

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty is the former Northern editor of The Irish Times