Humanists UK to intervene in Northern Ireland abortion case

18 September, 2018

Update: The hearing of this case has been postponed until November.

Original story: Humanists UK is to intervene in a human rights case about a mother procuring abortion pills for her daughter, due to be heard in Northern Ireland this week. The case, known as JR76, focuses on the decision to prosecute the mother after she supplied the pills to her daughter: the teenager became pregnant despite being under sixteen, in circumstances that made her the victim of a sexual crime according to the law in Northern Ireland.

The prosecution was brought about after the the family sought support, when social services reported the matter to the police. The police were then supplied with the daughter’s confidential GP records without her knowledge. The case, which is due to be heard on 20-21 September in Belfast, therefore focuses on the breach of doctor-patient confidentiality as well as whether the regime in Northern Ireland complies with human rights in these circumstances.

In June this year, the Supreme Court in London ruled that the fact that abortion in Northern Ireland is illegal in the cases of rape, incest, and fatal foetal abnormality, is a breach of the Human Rights Act. This case seeks to build on that precedent.

In its intervention, Humanists UK is providing written legal submissions and also provided evidence from four eminent professors (further details below):

  • Wendy Savage, gynaecologist and obstetrician, Honorary Professor at Middlesex University, and former elected member of the General Medical Council (GMC) and an elected member of the Council of the British Medical Association (BMA) and its ethics committee;
  • AC Grayling, Professor of Philosophy and Master of the New College of the Humanities;
  • John Harris, Professor Emeritus of Bioethics at the University of Manchester; and
  • Simon Blackburn, retired Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge.

Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented, ‘It is simply shocking that a mother can be prosecuted for procuring abortion pills for her daughter in such difficult circumstances, relying on documents obtained as a result of a breach of doctor-patient confidentiality at that. We very much hope the Belfast High Court agrees and orders that the prosecution is dropped.

‘As it is, the UK Government already needs to urgently take action to bring about drastic improvement in abortion law in Northern Ireland. We hope that this heartbreaking case only adds to the pressure for change.’

Janet Farrell, solicitor at Bhatt Murphy representing Humanists UK, commented, ‘The Supreme Court has already ruled that the current law concerning access to abortion in Northern Ireland is incompatible with the right to respect for private and family life in cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality. The circumstances of the teenage girl in JR76 clearly come within the same exception. Respect for the rights of women and girls in Northern Ireland by decision makers and lawmakers is long overdue.’

About Humanists UK’s intervention

Professor Savage’s evidence examines GMC and other guidance to argue that there shouldn’t have been a breach of doctor-patient confidentiality in this case. The evidence of the three philosophers 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 serious circumstances highlighted by the case. The evidence provided builds on Humanists UK’s unique interdisciplinary expertise, at the intersection of medical ethics, moral philosophy and law.

Humanists UK is represented by solicitor Janet Farrell of Bhatt Murphy solicitors through agent solicitors Harte, Coyle and Collins in Belfast. Stephen Cragg QC, assisted by Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC and Katie O’Byrne (all barristers at Doughty Street Chambers) drafted the submissions for Humanists UK.

Humanists UK has long campaigned in defence of women’s reproductive rights and has intervened in the two other contemporary cases concerning Northern Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws, A and B and NIHRC. Its 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. It 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 recent months it has been campaigning with Stella Creasy MP and groups such as the Family Planning Association, Amnesty International, BPAS, London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign, and Alliance for Choice for repeal of sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Persons Act 1861, in order to decriminalise abortion for women in Northern Ireland, as well as England and Wales.


For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson on or 020 3675 0959, or Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator on or on 02890 029946.

Read more about Humanists UK’s campaigns work on abortion:

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.

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