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Judgment expected tomorrow in Northern Ireland abortion case

The Supreme Court, London

Tomorrow at around 9.45 am the UK Supreme Court is due to hand down its judgment in the case brought by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) over the laws on abortion in Northern Ireland. The case focuses on whether abortion should be legal in the cases of (i) women with pregnancies where the foetus cannot survive birth, (ii) women whose pregnancies arise from rape or incest, and (iii) women with serious malformation of the foetus.

Humanists UK is the first intervener in the case, having acted in support of the Commission. Tomorrow it will be issuing comment after the judgment has been handed down.

About Humanists UK’s intervention

Humanists UK provided written legal submissions, gave oral submissions to the Court, and also provided evidence from three eminent philosophers and Humanists UK patrons: Professor A.C. Grayling, Professor of Philosophy and Master of the New College of the Humanities; Professor John Harris, Professor Emeritus of Bioethics at the University of Manchester; and Professor Simon Blackburn, retired Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge. Their evidence concerns the philosophical concepts of autonomy, choice, dignity, and suffering, the absence of a compelling moral case for the almost total ban on abortion in Northern Ireland, and the absence of exemptions in the three serious categories highlighted by the case. The evidence provided builds on Humanists UK’s unique interdisciplinary expertise, at the intersection of medical ethics, moral philosophy and law.

Humanists UK is represented by solicitor Janet Farrell (Bhatt Murphy) and barristers Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC, Fiona Murphy and Mary-Rachel McCabe (Doughty Street Chambers).

Caoilfhionn’s oral submissions are available for viewing on the Supreme Court website (from 1 hr 45 mins). In her oral submissions on behalf of Humanists UK, she focused, amongst other things, on the lack of an evidential basis for the moral case against abortion in these circumstances, and the fact that the foetus is not recognised in law as a rights-holder.

Humanists UK has long campaigned in defence of women’s reproductive rights and has intervened in other cases concerning Northern Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws. Its policies and approach to abortion are informed by its ethical position which supports a woman’s right to dignity and personal autonomy and accordingly to access a safe and lawful abortion with appropriate secular counselling and after-care should she choose to do so. It has successfully campaigned to oppose changes to the law in England and Wales that seek to restrict access to abortion. It is a member of the Voice for Choice coalition, the We Trust Women campaign, and the Back Off campaign. Its section Northern Ireland Humanists is a member of the Trust Women coalition, coordinated by Alliance for Choice.

In recent months it has been campaigning with Stella Creasy MP and groups such as Family Planning Association Northern Ireland, Amnesty International NI, BPAS, London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign, and Alliance for Choice for repeal of sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Persons Act 1861, in order to decriminalise abortion for women in Northern Ireland, as well as England and Wales.

About the case

The law governing abortion in Northern Ireland is one of the most restrictive in Europe, such that abortion is unlawful in all but the most extreme cases. The criminal sanctions imposed are amongst the harshest in the world, with the maximum sentence being life imprisonment. A termination is only lawful when it constitutes a threat to a woman’s life or a serious, permanent, or long term effect on her physical or mental health. The NIHRC hopes this case will extend that to pregnancies involving sexual crime and serious or fatal foetal abnormalities. The case saw the NIHRC succeed at the High Court in 2015, only to then have this overturned by the Court of Appeal in June last year.

The case was heard before seven Supreme Court judges over three days (24-26 October 2017): President of the Supreme Court, Lady Hale; Northern Irish Justice, Lord Kerr; and Lord Mance, Lord Wilson, Lord Reed, Lady Black, and Lord Lloyd-Jones.

In a separate case in June 2017, in a 3-2 ruling, the Supreme Court dismissed a challenge to the fact that women from Northern Ireland couldn’t access abortion services for free on the NHS in England. Humanists UK intervened in that case too. However, having won the case, subsequently the Secretary of State for Health in England chose to reverse his policy on the matter, and allow free abortions on the NHS after all. The Scottish and Welsh governments then did the same.

But this reversal still doesn’t mean Northern Ireland women can access free abortions in Northern Ireland itself; the Supreme Court case focuses on access to abortion services in Northern Ireland.

In February, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) found that the current restrictions on accessing abortion services in Northern Ireland constitute ‘grave’ and ‘systemic’ violations of women’s rights. Last month, the population of the Republic of Ireland voted overwhelmingly to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Irish constitution, meaning that abortion is now expected to be made legal on demand up to twelve weeks, and in more specific circumstances later. This has led to strong pressure for similar change in Northern Ireland. Just yesterday an emergency debate in the House of Commons brought by Stella Creasy saw many MPs from all sides of the House speaking up in support of reform.


For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson on or 0781 55 89 636, or Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator on or on 07918 975795.

Read more about Humanists UK’s campaigns work on abortion:

At Humanists UK, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. Our work brings non-religious people together to develop their own views, helping people be happier and more fulfilled in the one life we have. Through our ceremonies, education services, and community and campaigning work, we strive to create a fair and equal society for all.

Northern Ireland Humanists is a part of Humanists UK, working with the Humanist Association of Ireland.

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