North’s abortion law subjects women to cruel treatment, court hears

Case described as ‘very difficult and sensitive’ by president of supreme court in London

Brenda Hale, president of the British supreme court: ‘We will now go away and try and work out the answer to these difficult questions.’ Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill.

Brenda Hale, president of the British supreme court: ‘We will now go away and try and work out the answer to these difficult questions.’ Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill.

 

A United Nations lawyer has told the supreme court in London Northern Ireland’s abortion law discriminates against women on the grounds of sex and subjects them to cruel and inhuman treatment.

Helen Mountfield QC was speaking during the final day of a three-day hearing on the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission’s (NIHRC) challenge to the legislation, which bans abortion unless the mother is in danger of death or long-term illness.

The NIHRC argues criminalisation of abortion in the case of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality is incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

The supreme court’s president Brenda Hale said the panel of seven judges had sought to be fair to all parties in what she described as a “very difficult and sensitive” case.

“We will now go away and try and work out the answer to these difficult questions,” she said.

Earlier, Northern Ireland’s attorney general John Larkin QC told the court the NIHRC, which was set up under the Good Friday Agreement, had no standing to take a case such as this.

“There is absolutely nothing in the agreement which says they should be able to bring this kind of case,” he said.

“At the core of the protection of human rights is a concern with the rule of law. And the rule of law, among other things requires that pubic authorities, whether they be prisons or courts or human rights commissions, stay within the bounds of the law that applies to them.

“And this commission has gone beyond the bounds that parliament has set.”

Nathalie Lieven QC, on behalf of the NIHRC, said the commission was “a central limb” of the Belfast Agreement, established to protect the human rights of all.

She said that, although three women who had been refused abortions although their foetuses had fatal abnormalities had gone public for the current case, no victims of rape had done so.

“Victims of rape in Northern Ireland who are made pregnant are not going to go before the courts and bring an action for the refusal of an abortion. It’s completely inconceivable,” she said.

“Make no mistake, the effect of the attorney’s argument is that those women in particular, those women and girls will not have their rights vindicated.”

Lady Hale did not set a date for the court to deliver its ruling but it is not expected before next year.