Sarah Ewart: landmark legal case for Northern Ireland abortion rights

northern ireland abortion rights, landmark legal case abortion
The symbolic statue of Justice. © Oleg Dudko

This week, the Belfast High Court will hear a case that could find Northern Ireland’s abortion law in breach of the UK’s human rights commitments

Sarah Ewart was forced to travel to England for an abortion after being told her pregnancy had a fatal foetal diagnosis, to bring her case to the Belfast High Court. Amnesty is an intervenor in the case, as are Humanists UK who are providing evidence of rights violation.

The case was launched following a UK Supreme Court judgment in June 2018. In this case, five of the seven UK Supreme Court judges ruled that Northern Ireland’s abortion law breaches the UK’s human rights obligations, yet the court concluded that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (the body that brought the case) did not have the power to bring the proceedings forward, as it was not itself a ‘victim’ of any unlawful act.

Due to this legal technicality, the UK’s Supreme Court was unable to issue a formal declaration of incompatibility: a declaration that this ruling is incompatible with the European Human Rights Convention.

Sarah Ewart and Amnesty are hoping that by bringing an individual’s case to the Belfast High Court, the declaration of incompatibility will be achieved. Sarah Ewart, said:

“Time and time again I’ve told my story to MPs, courtrooms and judges. Each time I re-live the trauma. I hope this will be the last time I have to go to court and prove that women like me should be able to access abortion services at home, without being forced to travel. I hope this case can bring a ruling that helps end the suffering for us all.”

Shami Chakrabarti, Labour’s Shadow Attorney General, responding to the news that Northern Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws are set to be challenged in the High Court, said:

“More than six months after the Supreme Court found that Northern Ireland abortion laws violate the fundamental rights of women, the Prime Minister is still prioritising her teetering political coalition – and just so the DUP will support her botched Brexit deal.

Grainne Teggart, Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland Campaign Manager, said:

“It’s a damning indictment on the UK Government’s failure to prioritise women’s rights and healthcare that women like Sarah are forced through the ordeal of the courts to have their rights vindicated.

“Last June, the UK’s Supreme Court made clear that the UK was in breach of its human rights obligations, but the final judgment couldn’t be made because an individual hadn’t brought the case forward. Sarah has bravely stepped up to be the individual who takes the case to the court.

“This hearing is our opportunity for an official judgment that Northern Ireland’s abortion law breaches the UK’s human rights commitments.

“It’s a huge moment. People everywhere will have their fingers crossed with hope that the Belfast Court rules in favour of women’s rights and reproductive freedom.

“Women in Northern Ireland cannot be left to suffer under one of the most oppressive and severe abortion laws in the world. This must be our time for change.”

Janet Farrell, a solicitor at Bhatt Murphy representing Humanists UK, commented:

“Sarah Ewart endured a horrific ordeal five years ago as a result of inhumane and outdated laws. Now she is enduring a further ordeal in the courts, due to a failure by the authorities to respond to the findings of the Supreme Court and repeated criticisms by international bodies. No woman should have to fight for access to healthcare taken for granted across the remainder of the UK.

She continues to refuse to help the most vulnerable of women, who are still having to go to Court to protect themselves. It’s not wearing t-shirts and unveiling statues that make you a feminist – you’ve got to defend other women’s rights.”


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