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High Court in Northern Ireland rules country's strict abortion ban violates human rights

Impact of abortion ban in Northern Ireland

London – The High Court in Northern Ireland ruled Thursday that its abortion legislation breaches the United Kingdom's human rights commitments. Northern Ireland is one of the four countries that comprise the U.K., but unlike England, Wales and Scotland, it has some of the most restrictive abortion laws the Western world.

Sarah Ewart had challenged Northern Ireland's near-total abortion ban after she was refused the procedure in 2013. Doctors said her fetus wouldn't survive outside the womb, so she travelled to England, where the procedure is legal, to end her pregnancy. Since that time, she has been a leading figure in the push to change legislation around abortion in Northern Ireland.

"For nearly six years now I've not only been dealing with the experience of being denied an abortion following a fatal fetal diagnosis during pregnancy, but of being hauled through the courts so that others don't have to go through the trauma that I did," Ewart said.

"I'm massively relieved that the judge has ruled in our favor. Too many women in Northern Ireland have been put through unnecessary pain by our abortion law," she continued.

A change in the law

Under current legislation, women found guilty of terminating a pregnancy in Northern Ireland, as well as anyone who helps facilitate abortions — including doctors — can face life imprisonment. Though abortions are permitted when a woman's life is under threat, they happen very infrequently. There are no exceptions for rape or incest.

But that all could be about to change.

Northern Ireland is largely run by a local, "devolved" government that hasn't functioned for over two years because of deadlock involving its two main political parties. Recent legislation passed in Britain's parliament will extend abortion and same-sex marriage rights to Northern Ireland on October 21st if the country is unable to overcome the deadlock by that time.

Given this new legislation, Ewart's landmark case, which otherwise could have caused a change in Northern Ireland's abortion law, will not be taken further at this stage. A formal declaration of Northern Ireland's incompatibility with the U.K.'s human rights commitments will not be made, the judge who gave the summation said.

"Earlier this year Parliament legislated to reform abortion law and bring an end to the near total ban which has harmed many," Grainne Teggart, head of campaigns for Amnesty International in Northern Ireland, said. Teggart has been working with Ewart on her case.

"Today's ruling shows just how urgently we need change, so that we can access this healthcare without having to travel and without being treated as criminals. There can be no delay – we must see free, safe, legal and local abortion services opening up within months," Teggart said.

Anti-abortion rights activists protested outside the court house during the hearing, BBC News reported.

"It's a very sad day that the court has denied the right to life for unborn children," Bernie Smyth, who is the director of the anti-abortion campaign group, Precious Life, told the BBC.

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