On Thursday a ruling from the High Court in Belfast has confirmed what campaigners, healthcare providers, and the women of Northern Ireland have known for years – that the country’s archaic, cruel abortion law is in breach of the UK’s human rights commitments.
This is a hard-won victory. Sarah Ewart is a young mother who had to travel to England for an abortion after receiving the devastating diagnosis that her baby would not survive outside the womb. Sarah has spent years in and out of court in order to challenge the near-total abortion ban which does not permit abortion in cases of fatal foetal anomaly. The ruling on Thursday that the current ban is in breach of her human rights is a testament to her bravery and courage.
Thoughts will now turn to what will happen next. It is true that the ruling will not change the law as it stands today. Sadly, women like Sarah will, for the time being, have to continue to travel overseas to access the care they need. However, all this could change in just a matter of weeks.
In July this year, parliament passed an amendment, tabled by Labour MP Stella Creasy, to force the government to comply with their human rights obligations in Northern Ireland in relation to abortion. The legislation means that unless the NI Assembly reforms by 21st October, the current criminal sanctions against abortion will be repealed and abortion care services can legally be provided up to 24 weeks of pregnancy.
However, there can be a big gap between services being legal and services being available. Abortion has been legal in certain circumstances in Great Britain for over 50 years, yet some women still have to travel hundreds of miles to find a provider willing and able to treat them. Legal victories are not enough to bring abortion care to Northern Ireland, but today’s ruling will play a huge role in helping to overcome the inevitable obstacles.
Many clinicians in Northern Ireland have spent years working under the previous draconian law. Guidance issued by the Attorney General in 2016 left healthcare professionals afraid to even provide leaflets for the Family Planning Association in their waiting rooms. Criminal punishment for abortion is not an abstract idea in Northern Ireland – in 2016, a woman was handed a three-month suspended sentence for using pills to end her pregnancy.
The longstanding fear around providing services in Northern Ireland cannot disappear overnight. Healthcare professionals need clear, unequivocal guidance from the government and healthcare bodies to give them the reassurance they need in order to do so.
Those who opposed the passage of legislation in parliament have argued that this is a case of English MPs imposing a law on NI that they do not want or need. Yet today’s ruling came from the High Court in Belfast, telling anti-choice politicians that abortion law reform is bigger than Westminster politics – it is a question of universal human rights.
Rather than debating the human rights case for abortion care we can now move forward to focussing on how services should be provided, including the need for buffer zones. Family planning and abortion clinics have been subjected to horrific anti-abortion activism in the past, so we need councils and politicians to start looking now at what measures can be in place to protect women and healthcare staff.
Today’s ruling will go down in history as a landmark case for the rights of women in Northern Ireland. There are many wonderful, pro-choice clinicians in Northern Ireland who have been unable to provide abortion care in line with their own conscience and the needs of their patients, hamstrung by one of the strictest abortion laws in Europe. Let’s hope today’s ruling makes it clear that those who choose to provide abortion care after 21st October will be on the right side of law and the right side of history.
Katherine O’Brien is Head of Media and Policy Research at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service