Northern Irish woman launches legal challenge against restrictive abortion laws

16 June, 2015

2015 06 16 cropped + lighting Belfast high court by Cathrine Johansson
The High Court in Belfast, where Ms Ewart’s case is being heard | Photo: Cathrine Johansson

A Northern Irish woman who travelled to England to have an abortion has launched a legal challenge against Northern Ireland’s highly restrictive abortion laws. Sarah Ewart, backed by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC), is arguing for the legalisation of abortion in the region in cases of rape, incest, or serious foetal abnormality. The judicial review is being heard in the High Court yesterday, today, and tomorrow. The British Humanist Association (BHA) has voiced its support for the case and renewed its calls for a harmonisation of abortion laws in the United Kingdom so all UK women can have equal access to sexual and reproductive health services.

Currently, Northern Irish law only permits women to have abortions in life or death circumstances, or if there is a risk to the woman’s permanent physical or mental health. Northern Irish women are also prevented from accessing NHS abortion services elsewhere in the UK.

Speaking ahead of the case, Ewart described how she travelled to England for an abortion while 20 weeks pregnant after her baby was diagnosed with anencephaly, leading her doctors to advise that the baby was unlikely to survive for long after birth. She said, ‘I simply could not face it, but the law in Northern Ireland meant I had no option but to go to England and take myself away from the care of the doctors and midwife who knew me. I was 23 years old and totally devastated.’ NIHRC’s barrister, Nathalie Lieven QC cited figures showing Ewart was among 802 women and girls from Northern Ireland who travelled to England and Wales for abortions in 2013.

Commenting on the case, BHA Director of Public Affairs and Campaigns Pavan Dhaliwal said, ‘A woman’s right to exercise control over her own body is fundamental. Only days ago, the European Parliament endorsed a report on gender equality highlighting the pressing need to provide European women with greater access to contraception and abortion, overcoming ferocious lobbying from religious groups.

‘As things stand, basic reproductive rights and health services are being denied to women in Northern Ireland, both through the country’s anachronistic abortion laws and by the refusal to allow Northern Irish women access to NHS abortions. That a woman’s access to such basic health services should depend upon an accident of geography is astonishing and continues to put women’s lives at risk. The fact that this case is being contested in court represents a failure by politicians. We hope that representatives in Stormont and Westminster will find courage to act swiftly to redress this gross denial of rights, and we wish Ms Ewart every success with her legal challenge.’


For further comment or information, contact Pavan Dhaliwal at  or 0207 079 3585.

Read the Telegraph’s report on the case:

Read more about the BHA’s work on abortion:

The British Humanist Association (BHA) is the national charity representing and supporting the non-religious and campaigning for an end to religious privilege and discrimination based on religion or belief. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.