Chief Commissioner Writes for Belfast Telegraph Judgment is a Victory for Women

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Judgment was given yesterday upholding the Commission’s legal challenge that the criminalization of terminations in cases of fatal foetal abnormality and for the victims of sex crimes is contrary to the right to family and private life under Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights. The Commission had raised its concerns over the compatibility with our 19th Century legislation with both the Department of Justice and Department of Health over a prolonged period. The Court also held that there is neither a general right to abortion nor a freestanding protection of the right to life under the common law. The failure to provide exceptions to the prohibition of termination in cases of serious foetal abnormality is also not contrary to the Convention.

The judgment is measured and deserves careful reading. It acknowledges the polarized nature of the debate but, also recognises the preparedness of many to listen and be persuaded by the strength of arguments advanced by the different parties to the debate. In the Judges own words ‘I hope everyone will read the judgment in full, consider the arguments that have been made and understand them, even if they are unable to accept the conclusion I have reached’.

The judgment vindicates the bravery of Sarah Ewart and a woman referred to as AT, who set out their experiences of wanting a termination in circumstances of fatal foetal abnormality.

What happens next? The Judge has indicated an intention to grant a ‘declaration of incompatibility’ in that the legislation is contrary to human rights in the specific circumstances of his ruling, unless the existing legislation can read so as to comply with the Human Rights. The Department of Justice may yet appeal. In the meantime, the Commission will seek to pursue arrangements that allow women and girls the rights to termination in Northern Ireland for fatal foetal abnormalities and when the victims of sex crimes without either they or their clinicians or healthcare professionals facing any risk of criminal charges and up to life imprisonment. That is the least that women who today face Sarah Ewart or AT’s circumstances deserve.

01 Dec 2015