22 March 2021 by

Campaigners hold a pro-choice banner as the protest for the legalization of abortion in Northern Ireland
© Charles McQuillan/Getty Photographs

Abortion reform in Northern Eire has had a fraught historical past, to say the least. Issues appeared to lastly come to a head when in 2019, the UK Parliament enacted the Northern Eire (Govt Formation and many others.) Act 2019 (2019 Act), which created a duty on the Secretary of State to implement abortion reform by following the report of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination of Ladies (CtteEDAW). Almost two years and two statutory devices later, Stormont finds itself mired in recent controversy as long-term abortion amenities in Northern Eire have but to be commissioned. So the plain query arises: what occurred?

The path to authorized change

On the outset, it must be remembered that when abortion reform was enacted in Nice Britain in 1967, it was not prolonged to Northern Eire – which was, at the moment, the one devolved administration within the UK (with healthcare firmly devolved to Stormont). Nor was abortion reform prolonged to Northern Eire when Direct Rule started in 1972. Till 2019, abortions had been principally unlawful underneath sections 58 and 59 of the Offences In opposition to the Particular person Act 1861 and part 25(1) of the Legal Justice Act (Northern Eire) 1945. The one exception to this sweeping regime was the so-called “Bourne exception”, derived from the summing up of proof within the legal case off wherein Mr Justice Macnaghten had stated that an abortion could also be lawfully carried out “in good religion for the aim solely of preserving the lifetime of the mom”.

Intermittently, the courts handled advanced and harrowing circumstances involving the query of whether or not an abortion could be lawful. Examples embody Northern Well being and Social Providers Board v F and G [1993] NI 268 involving a 14 year-old who needed an abortion and Northern Well being and Social Providers Board v A and others [1994] NIJB 1 involving a girl with extreme developmental disabilities, wherein the well being authority utilized for a declaration that an abortion could be lawful. From these circumstances, the Bourne exception’s give attention to the preservation of the lifetime of the mom was expanded to cowl accidents to bodily or psychological well being, however solely “actual and severe” accidents which should be “everlasting or long run”, with no different exceptions to the final unlawfulness of abortion underneath Northern Eire regulation. This authorized canvas was examined in Re Household Planning Affiliation of Northern Eire [2004] NICA 37-39, wherein the Northern Eire Court docket of Enchantment (Lord Justice Shiel, Lord Justice Campbell and Lord Justice Nicholson) unanimously held that the dearth of steering on lawful abortions in Northern Eire was in breach of a statutory obligation to safe the supply of built-in well being companies in Northern Eire. The precise regulation, nevertheless, was left unreformed.

It could not be till 2018 {that a} considerably extra definitive image of the regulation emerged. In Re Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission [2018] UKSC 27, the Supreme Court docket thought of whether or not the prevailing abortion regulation in Northern Eire was suitable with the rights underneath the European Conference on Human Rights (ECHR), specifically Articles 2 (proper to life), 3 (proper to not be subjected to torture or inhuman or degrading remedy or punishment), 8 (proper to non-public and household life) and 14 (prohibition of discrimination). That judgment has been coated in in depth element on this weblog (see Jake Richards’ post), so it solely suffices to say that, by a majority the Supreme Court docket concluded that the abortion regulation in Northern Eire was incompatible with ECHR rights (there was disagreement between the Justices on the extent of the incompatibility). Nevertheless, given {that a} completely different majority of the identical panel discovered that the Human Rights Fee didn’t have the standing to convey this case, no authorized change flowed from the general resolution.

The next 12 months nevertheless, because the Northern Eire Meeting, having collapsed in 2017, remained comatose, the UK Parliament needed to enact recent laws for some governance capabilities to proceed within the jurisdiction. This laws grew to become the 2019 Act, which included amendments to reform abortion regulation and enact same-sex marriage by Labour MPs Stella Creasy and Conor McGinn, respectively. The duties created by the 2019 Act led to the making of the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2020, which had been ultimately changed by the Abortion (Northern Ireland) (No. 2) Regulations 2020 (2020 Laws).

The brand new laws reformed abortion regulation considerably, implementing the CtteEDAW suggestions:

  1. For pregnancies not exceeding 12 weeks, regulation 3 requires solely a medical opinion fashioned in good religion that the being pregnant has not exceeded 12 weeks;
  2. For pregnancies not exceeding 24 weeks, regulation 4 requires an evaluation that the continuation of the being pregnant would would danger injuring the pregnant girl’s bodily or psychological well being to a larger extent than if the being pregnant had been terminated;
  3. Regulation 5 permits for a termination with out gestational limits if a registered medical practitioner kinds the opinion that the termination is instantly obligatory to avoid wasting the pregnant girl’s life or to forestall “grave everlasting harm” to her bodily or psychological well being.
  4. For pregnancies exceeding 24 weeks, regulation 6 permits for a termination to forestall “grave everlasting harm” to the pregnant girl or the place the continuation of the being pregnant would current a danger to the pregnant girl’s life larger than if the being pregnant had been terminated;
  5. Lastly, regulation 7 additionally permits terminations with out gestational limits if there’s a prognosis of extreme or deadly foetal abnormality.

Nevertheless, a change within the regulation didn’t considerably change the fact of entry to abortion.

The Present Downside

Regulation 8(1) of the 2020 Laws specifies the form of locations the place abortions could also be lawfully carried out, together with locations which can be authorised by the Northern Eire Division of Well being underneath regulation 8(3). The Northern Eire Heath Minister has stated that the commissioning of abortion amenities is a “cross-cutting” matter and thus wants settlement by the Govt Committee (the group of Northern Eire Ministers, roughly Stormont’s equal of a cupboard). The workings of the Govt Committee is sophisticated by the truth that it’s statutorily required to be a consociational coalition with numerous get together political and group affiliations, every of which has robust views on the subject of abortion regulation reform. Introduction of restricted abortion companies was additionally topic to three “cross-community” vetoes within the Govt Committee. Whereas the exact devolution preparations in Northern Eire, related as they’re to the backdrop of this challenge, are exterior the scope of this Weblog, the web impact of those controversies is the dearth of everlasting Northern Eire-wide abortion entry for girls who stay within the jurisdiction.

In the meantime, a private members’ bill introduced by Paul Givan MLA would take away abortion on the bottom of extreme foetal abnormalities, proscribing regulation 7 of the 2020 Laws (abortion with out gestational limits) to deadly foetal abnormalities solely, opposite to the CtteEDAW report.

On Three November 2020, the Northern Eire Human Rights Fee served pre-action correspondence challenging the continued lack of commissioning abortion companies in Northern Eire. That problem was granted permission to proceed by the Northern Eire Excessive Court docket in February 2021, with a listening to scheduled for Might 2021.

In March 2021, the Northern Eire Secretary of State introduced his intention to convey laws earlier than the UK Parliament to facilitate the commissioning of abortion companies in Northern Eire, incomes the immediate ire of the most important Govt get together in Northern Eire and varied reactions throughout its political spectrum.


Whereas the persevering with debate on abortion reform is convoluted and polarising, it’s price remembering two particular human rights safeguards constructed into the Northern Eire devolution settlement. The primary is the outright ban on the Northern Ireland Assembly, Northern Ireland Ministers and Departments from breaching ECHR rights. The second is the broad power of the Secretary of State to intervene to legislate or revoke laws that s/he considers to be in breach of the UK’s worldwide obligations, certainly one of which is the ECHR and one other, the Conference on the Elimination of All Types of Discrimination towards Ladies (CEDAW), in respect of which the CtteEDAW produced its report.

In the end, the continued lack of correct abortion entry in Northern Eire could also be overtaken both by Parliamentary laws or by the Human Rights Fee’s problem. Nevertheless, it’s price putting this in context. The interface between politics and regulation within the UK has been controversial in recent times, with perceived judicial expansiveness underneath the Human Rights Act 1998, on the expense of political establishments, coming underneath particular scrutiny. In Northern Eire, that interface has been controversial for fully completely different causes. In his judgment in JR80 v Northern Ireland Secretary and The Executive Office [2018] NIQB 32, Mr Justice McCloskey (as he then was) stated:

The indefinite moratorium afflicting the Govt and legislature of Northern Eire that includes within the current case arises in different judicial evaluate circumstances. One of many penalties of this moratorium is that members of the Northern Eire inhabitants are pushed to hunt redress from the Excessive Court docket in an try to handle features of the void led to by the absence of a Authorities and legislature… Whereas this doesn’t contain Judges encroaching upon the impermissible territory of political and legislative resolution making, it skews the constitutional preparations whereby this nation is ruled.

Because the continued delay in commissioning abortion companies has proven, there isn’t a assure that constitutional preparations will work easily even with the return of elected authorities. What’s considerably uncommon about this explicit deadlock, nevertheless, is the alignment of the political and authorized spheres in holding the Stormont authorities to account: whereas the Northern Eire Excessive Court docket scrutinises whether or not the Division of Well being and Well being Minister are performing lawfully, the Secretary of State intends to convey laws himself to fee abortion companies. In 2018, the Supreme Court docket offered in depth opinions on the difficulty of whether or not the abortion legal guidelines of Northern Eire breached ECHR rights, regardless of having discovered towards the Human Rights Fee on its standing (one thing later criticised as pushing on the boundaries of the separation of powers within the review report by the Independent Review of Administrative Law, [2.65]). The next 12 months, Parliament intervened to reform the regulation altogether. This recognition that the correction of human rights defects typically overrides the strict boundaries of constitutional propriety could lastly shut an extended, tortuous and exhausting chapter in Northern Eire.