Despite a disappointing Supreme Court decision—and insincere appeals to devolution aplenty—the mood is changing. The only question now is how long citizens in Northern Ireland will have to waitby Rachel Watters / June 7, 2018 / Leave a comment
This week’s emergency debate on repealing sections 58 and 59 of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act (to decriminalise abortion in England, Wales and Northern Ireland) represents a major shift in the Westminster response to the denial of abortion rights in Northern Ireland.
Although broader political motives are clearly at play, the serious consideration of the decriminalisation of abortion via Westminster is more than welcome after decades of increasingly complicit inaction. Legislating in this way could mitigate restrictions on abortion access in Northern Ireland which CEDAW have described as “grave and systematic” violations of the human rights of pregnant people.
In a highly-anticipated ruling this week, the Supreme Court decided that Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission did not have standing to bring a legal challenge, but still formed a majority view that the current law on abortion is incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, with Lord Kerr noting that the law “treats the pregnant woman as a vehicle and fails to attach any weight to her personal autonomy.”
The Supreme Court indicated that if an individual victim had brought the same legal challenge, the court would have issued a declaration of incompatibility under section 4 of the Human Rights Act 1998.
This would have placed further pressure on Parliament to address the lack of abortion provision in Northern Ireland.
Not as simple as “a devolved matter”
So what happens next? While many MPs declared support for abortion reform in Northern Ireland on Tuesday, some expressed reluctance to use their own legislative powers to bring it about. Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley, threw the issue into the long grass by stating that legislating via Westminster would “disenfranchise 1.3 million citizens,” and we must leave abortion reform to Stormont.
It is wrong to assume, as some seem to, that the people of Northern Ireland oppose abortion reform simply because two of the largest political parties—the DUP and SDLP—do so.
The 2016 NI Life and Times survey of over 1200 adults found that 71 per cent of respondents agreed that abortion should “should be a matter for medical regulation, and not criminal law.”
To refer to the will of the Northern Irish people as a reason not to legislate is therefore…