Hearing concludes in Northern Ireland abortion Supreme Court case

26 October, 2017

The UK Supreme Court. via

The hearing has concluded in the case before the Supreme Court concerning access to abortion services for women in Northern Ireland. The case, brought by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) against the Northern Ireland Government, 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 intervened in the case in support of the Commission.

In her oral submissions on behalf of Humanists UK, Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC 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 also made written submissions and provided expert evidence from the eminent moral philosophers and Humanists UK patrons Professor AC Grayling, Professor John Harris, and Professor Simon Blackburn. The evidence provided builds on Humanists UK’s unique interdisciplinary expertise, at the intersection of medical ethics, moral philosophy and law.

Andrew Copson, Humanists UK Chief Executive, said: ‘It is unbelievable that in this day and age, women in Northern Ireland are unable to access safe and legal abortion services, even in the extreme circumstances that this week’s case deals with. With this Friday also seeing the 50th anniversary of the Abortion Act 1967, it is long past time for serious reform of Northern Ireland’s abortion laws. We hope that this court case represents the start of that process.’

Janet Farrell, solicitor at Bhatt Murphy representing Humanists UK, said: ‘In bringing this case, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission has chosen to focus on three extremely compelling sets of circumstances, where the denial of women’s autonomy and dignity must surely be found to represent a breach of their human rights. We very much hope the court finds in the NIHRC’s favour.’

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 this June.

The case has been heard before seven Supreme Court judges over three days (24-26 October 2017): newly appointed 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.

It has been heard in the week that the rest of the UK is celebrating the historic 50th anniversary of the Abortion Act 1967. That Act enabled access to reproductive services in a wide variety of circumstances in England, Scotland, and Wales, but it was excluded from applying in Northern Ireland.

In a separate case in June, 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. On Monday the UK Government announced that there will be financial assistance for travel and accommodation for those traveling to England who need it most.

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.

About Humanists UK’s intervention

Humanists UK has provided written legal submissions, given oral submissions to the Court, and has 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.

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).

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. Humanists UK’s 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. Humanists UK 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 September 2017 Humanists UK spoke out against the restrictive abortion laws enforced in many countries around the world as part of the 36th regular session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva.


For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson on richy@humanists.uk or 020 3675 0959, or Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator on boyd.sleator@nihumanists.org or on 07470 395090.

Read more about Humanists UK’s campaigns work on abortion: https://humanists.uk/campaigns/public-ethical-issues/sexual-and-reproductive-rights/

Read the NIHRC’s statement about the appeal: http://www.nihrc.org/news/detail/uk-supreme-court-to-hear-our-appeal-case-on-termination-of-pregnancy-laws

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.

Humanists UK recently changed its name from the British Humanist Association: https://humanists.uk/2017/05/22/bha-becomes-humanists-uk/

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