Humanists UK intervenes in Northern Ireland abortion case at High Court

1 February, 2019

Photo: Cathrine Johansson.

Humanists UK has provided evidence in the Sarah Ewart case heard in the High Court of Justice in Belfast this week.

Sarah Ewart was denied an abortion in Northern Ireland in spite of having a fatal foetal abnormality. She was forced to travel to England to have an abortion after being told her pregnancy would not result in a child that could survive outside the womb. Sarah argued in court that denying her an abortion was a breach of her human rights.

Humanists UK, which intervened in the case, hopes it will challenge Northern Ireland’s harsh abortion laws and pave the way for more women to have safe and legal access to abortions in Northern Ireland. The court case is ongoing.

Humanists UK provided legal submissions to the High Court along with evidence from an eminent expert in medical and bioethical studies, Professor Emeritus of Bioethics at the University of Manchester, John Harris, which centered on the importance of autonomy in decision-making by women and girls who become pregnant with fatal foetal abnormalities.

Humanists UK supports the rights of women and girls to dignity and personal autonomy, and accordingly their rights to choose and access safe and lawful abortion, regardless of the circumstances of their pregnancies. In recent years, Humanists UK and Northern Ireland Humanists have intervened in several cases concerning Northern Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws.

Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson said: ‘Women in Northern Ireland are abused by the current law, which denies them control over their own bodies. In many cases, women already traumatised are forced to seek the medical help they need far away from their families and friends.

‘While we support wider abortion reform, not just in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, we hope this case will pave the way in overhauling this inhumane law and allow safe and legal access to abortions for all women in Northern Ireland.’

Janet Farrell, solicitor at Bhatt Murphy representing Humanists UK, commented: ‘Sarah Ewart endured a horrific ordeal five years ago as a result of inhumane and outdated laws. Now she is enduring a further ordeal in the courts, due to a failure by the authorities to respond to the findings of the Supreme Court and repeated criticisms by international bodies. No woman should have to fight for access to healthcare taken for granted across the remainder of the UK.’

About the case

Abortion law in Northern Ireland is one of the most restrictive in Europe. Current restrictions force women to either travel to the UK to receive treatment, risk prosecution for procuring illegal online abortion pills, or continue their pregnancies against their wishes and in violation of their rights. There is no exception made for pregnancies that arise as a result of sexual crime, or where there is a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality. 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. Only 12 abortions took place in Northern Ireland in 2017/18 according to data published earlier this month.

This case hopes to extend this to pregnancies where there is a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality. The case seeks to declare that Sarah Ewart’s Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (concerning the right to respect for private and family life) are breached by Northern Ireland’s abortion law, and that the legislation is incompatible with Article 8 as they relate to abortion access in cases of fatal foetal abnormality.

In a separate case last year the Supreme Court 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. Due to a technicality however the ruling did not have binding effect. Sarah Ewart’s case now hopes to build on the Supreme Court decision and force an amendment in the law and the introduction of abortion reforms.

About Humanists UK’s intervention

Humanists UK has provided a written legal submission, and has also provided evidence from Humanists UK patron and eminent expert in medical and bioethical studies, Professor Emeritus of Bioethics at the University of Manchester, John Harris. Prof Harris’ evidence concerns the ethical and philosophical framework surrounding the concept of reproductive liberty and the application of these philosophical principles in FFA cases in particular.

Humanists UK is represented by solicitor Janet Farrell of Bhatt Murphy solicitors through agent solicitors Harte, Coyle and Collins in Belfast. Steve McQuitty BL, assisted by Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC of Doughty Street Chambers, drafted the submissions for Humanists UK.


For more information contact Humanists UK press manager Casey-Ann Seaniger at or 020 7324 3078.

About Humanists UK’s work on abortion:

Humanists UK has long campaigned in defence of women’s reproductive rights and has intervened in the three other recent cases concerning Northern Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws, A and B, NIHRC, and JR76. 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.

Read more about our work in the Sarah Ewart case here and here.

For more information about Humanists UK’s campaigning work on abortion, visit

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.