Legislature should decide North's abortion laws, court told

Northern Ireland's criminal law on abortion is a matter for the "democratic judgment" of the legislature, the UK highest court has heard.

The Stormont Executive's senior legal adviser, Attorney General John Larkin QC, made the submission to Supreme Court justices in London as he contested a human rights challenge against the legality of the current law on termination of pregnancy.

Mr Larkin told a panel of seven judges, headed by the court's president Lady Hale: "There seems little doubt that the debate about what the law on abortion in Northern Ireland should be will continue.

"Litigation may be apt for resolving concrete disputes, but it is inapt for the resolution of larger societal questions."

He argued there was "nothing" in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) that "requires the present political and moral judgment of Northern Ireland about the humanity of the unborn child and his or her current protection to be changed".

"Such a change, if it is to come, must come from an Act of the Assembly, an Act whose contents would not be pre-ordained by anything in the Convention," he submitted.

He told the court: "The criminal law in Northern Ireland is a matter for the democratic judgment of the Northern Ireland legislature.

"It has struck the proportionate balance required for the protection of the rights of women and unborn children."

Attorney General John Larkin QC

The justices heard from Mr Larkin on the second day of an appeal by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC).

The court has previously heard from the NIHRC's lawyer that the strict abortion law criminalises "exceptionally vulnerable" women and girls and subjects them to "inhuman and degrading" treatment.

The commission argues the effect on women is incompatible with rights under the ECHR, and is urging the justices to rule that a prohibition on abortions where a pregnancy arises from rape or incest, or "involves a serious foetal abnormality", is unlawful.

Unlike other parts of the UK, the 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland.

Abortion is illegal except where a woman's life is at risk or there is a permanent or serious danger to her mental or physical health.

Anyone who unlawfully carries out an abortion could be jailed for life.

Belfast's High Court made a declaration in December 2015 that the law was incompatible with Article Eight of the ECHR, the right to respect for private and family life, because of the absence of exceptions to the general prohibition on abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities and pregnancies resulting from sexual offences.

But that decision was overturned in June this year by three of Northern Ireland's most senior judges.

Mr Larkin is asking the Supreme Court to uphold their findings.

The Northern Ireland Assembly voted in February last year against legalising abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality and rape or incest.


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