Whose womb is it anyway? NI Court shrinks from abortion law reform

The Attorney General for Northern Ireland and the Department of Justice (appellants) v The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (respondent)  [2017] NICA 42 (29 June 2017) – read judgment

Although the accompanying image is not in any way intended to suggest that Northern Ireland’s law on abortion parallels the situation obtaining in Margaret Atwood’s fictional Gilead, the failure of the legislature and the courts to overhaul the criminal law to allow women access to termination is a bleak reflection of the times.  The hopes that were raised by high court rulings from 2015 and 2016 that existing abortion laws breached a woman’s right to a private life under Article 8 have now been dashed.

Let me start with a much quoted proposition derived from Strasbourg law.

when a woman is pregnant her private life becomes closely connected with the developing foetus and her right to respect for her private life must be weighed against other competing rights and freedoms, including those of the unborn child.

Really? Does that mean a woman loses her autonomy, the minute she conceives? Does she become public property, subject to the morals and wishes of the majority? Apparently so, particularly when one reads the opinion of Weatherup LJ:

the restriction on termination of pregnancies pursues the legitimate aim of the protection of morals reflecting the views of the majority of the members of the last [Northern Ireland] Assembly on the protection of the unborn child.

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NI Abortion Refugees: further thoughts


R (o.t.a A and B) v. Department of Health [2017] UKSC 41, 14 June 2017 – judgment here; previous post here.

Update: the government has announced its intention to make funding available for women travelling from Northern Ireland to have free termination services on the NHS in England (29 June 2017).

Was it unlawful for the Secretary of State for Health, who had power to make provisions for the functioning of the National Health Service in England, to have failed to make a provision which would have enabled women who were citizens of the UK, but who were usually resident in Northern Ireland, to undergo a termination of pregnancy under the NHS in England free of charge?

No, said the Supreme Court (Lord Wilson, who gave the lead judgment, and Lords Reed and Hughes, but with Lord Kerr and Lady Hale dissenting).

Background law and facts

The law on abortion in Northern Ireland is governed by the Northern Ireland Assembly. Abortion is only lawful there if there is a threat of long term psychiatric or physical injury to the mother. As this is difficult to prove, a steady stream of women come from Northern Ireland to secure abortions, mostly from private clinics that charge a fee for the service as they are unable to obtain a termination free of charge under the English NHS. Continue reading

UN committee rules on abortion prohibition – the Round-up

Photo credit: the Huffington Post

In the news

The UN human rights committee has found that restrictive abortion laws in Ireland had subjected a woman to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, in violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

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The Round-Up: NI Change in Abortion Laws, and the Lord’s Prayer Ban

Photo credit: GuardianLaura Profumo considers the latest human rights headlines.

In the News

The High Court in Belfast today ruled that abortion legislation in Northern Ireland is in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHCR) brought the case to extend abortion to cases of serious foetal malformation, rape and incest.

The Abortion Act 1967 does not extend to Northern Ireland: abortion is only allowed there if a woman’s life is at risk, or if there is a permanent risk to her mental or physical health. In this judicial review, it was held that the grounds for abortion should be extended, though it is still to be determined whether new legislation will be required to give effect to the ruling.

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Conscientious objection to abortion: Catholic midwives lose in Supreme Court

pic_giant_051713_Therapeutic-Cloning-of-Human-EmbryosGreater Glasgow Health Board v. Doogan and Wood [2014] UKSC 68 – read judgment here.

The Supreme Court recently handed down its judgment in an interesting and potentially controversial case concerning the interpretation of the conscientious objection clause in the Abortion Act 1967. Overturning the Inner House of the Court of Session’s ruling, the Court held that two Catholic midwives could be required by their employer to delegate to, supervise and support other staff who were involved in carrying out abortion procedures, as part of their roles as Labour Ward Co-ordinators at the Southern General Hospital in Glasgow.

We set out the background to the case and explained the earlier rulings and their ramifications on this blog here and here. The key question the Supreme Court had to grapple with the meaning of the words “to participate in any treatment authorised by this Act to which he has a conscientious objection” in section 4 of the 1967 Act.

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Bipolar patient has capacity to decide to terminate pregnancy

Re SB (A patient; capacity to consent to termination) [2013] EWHC 1417 (COP) 21 May 2013 – read judgment

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Sidney Chawatama of 1 Crown Office Row represented the husband of the patient in this case. He has nothing to do with the writing of this post. 

The patient in this case was a 37 year old highly intelligent graduate who worked in IT. For the past 8 years she presented with symptoms which were diagnosed as those of bi-polar disorder. She had been detained under compulsory or similar powers at various times in Italy, in France and here in England.

These proceedings were issued in the Court of Protection because the mother concerned was “very strongly” requesting a termination and giving her consent to it. The issue related to her capacity. Section 1(2) of the Mental Capacity Act 2005 is very clear and provides as follows: “A person must be assumed to have capacity unless it is established that he lacks capacity.” Accordingly, unless it is established, on a balance of probability, that the mother does not have capacity to make the decision that she undoubtedly has made, her autonomy as an adult to request and consent to the proposed abortion procedure is preserved. Continue reading

Comment | Abortion and conscientious objection: what about human rights? – Elizabeth Prochaska

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Doogan and Wood v. NHS Greater Glasgow & Clyde Health Board [2013] CSIH 36 – read judgment here and Alasdair Henderson’s commentary here

It is easy to become complacent about women’s reproductive rights in mainland Britain. Compared to our Irish neighbours, women here are able to access their chosen contraceptive, abortion and maternity services with relative ease. When Savita Halappanavar died after she was refused an abortion in Galway, commentators lamented a system where a woman could be told by healthcare staff that she couldn’t have an abortion because Ireland is a Catholic country. We imagined that such events could not happen here. A recent judgment of the Scottish Inner House of the Court of Session (the Scottish Court of Appeal) shakes that belief. Of most concern is that the court failed to engage with the human rights implications of its decision.

Our abortion law is found in the Abortion Act 1967. Section 1 makes abortion lawful only when it has been authorised by two doctors who attest that continuing the pregnancy poses a risk to a woman’s physical or mental health, or where the child would ‘suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped’. In effect, all abortions, save those for fetal abnormality, are performed on the basis that there is a threat to the woman’s physical or mental integrity as a result of pregnancy. Section 4 excuses a person from ‘participating in any treatment’ under the Act if they express a conscientious objection to abortion. As the Abortion Rights campaign points out, the law gives doctors control over women’s informed choices about their pregnancy that can lead to damaging delays in accessing abortion services.

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