The Green Party in Northern Ireland called it ‘a momentous moment for women’, the British Humanist Association described it as an ‘enormous breakthrough’, whereas the British Pregnancy Advisory Service went further stating that ‘we should seek to remove abortion from the criminal law altogether’.
Yesterday’s ruling by a judge sitting at the High Court in Belfast that Northern Ireland’s law on abortion is a breach of women’s human rights was always going to please those who consider that abortion should always be a woman’s choice or even right. Once again we come down to an unholy battle that pits the supposed rights of a mother against her unborn child. In this case it was one man, Mr Justice Horner, concluding that current legislation in Northern Ireland relating to specific situations breaches article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which requires respect for a person’s family life and personal autonomy.
Even if this decision were to become law in Northern Ireland – and let’s be clear that without the backing of the NI Assembly, it’s a long way off – the restrictions limiting abortion to fatal foetal abnormalities and cases of rape or incest would still land far short of the effective state of abortion on demand in the rest of the UK that resulted in 184,000 terminations in England and Wales last year. But taking this into consideration there is still a worrying bias against the innocent and powerless child waiting to become an individual worthy of dignity and protection. It is understandable that in those rare circumstances where a foetus has such severe abnormalities that it will inevitably die prior to birth or within minutes of being born, all involved might consider it unhelpful to continue with the pregnancy, but to label this as a mother’s human right rather than a decision on medical grounds unnecessarily muddies the waters. This justification becomes further strained when the violation of the mother’s body through rape or incest automatically legitimises the destruction of another human being. As Peter Lynas, a barrister and also General Director of the Evangelical Alliance in Northern Ireland commented following the outcome:
Sexual crime is a grievous abuse of a woman’s dignity and rights. Abortion cannot undo the terrible harm, and tragically creates a second innocent victim.”
Today, in a confused judgment, the Judge ruled that a “foetus does not have a right to life under Article 2”, but that “pre-natal life here is given protection under certain statutes.” The Court appears to be dictating when the unborn baby has a right to life. At the same time the judge has worryingly reduced a mother to ‘merely a receptacle’.
It is alarming that human rights are being used to end human life.
Although in this instance, the application of human rights may have led to a range of limited justifications, it still rules most situations out. Interestingly the initial legal challenge that was brought by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission included an argument in favour of abortion when there is a serious, but not fatal, foetal abnormality. In this instance Mr Justice Horner has found that such abortions cannot be justified by way of human rights, nor did he find that abortion had to be legalised in general under the European Convention.
This is a far cry from another abortion case being brought by Pro-life campaigner Aisling Hubert and supported by the Christian Legal Centre which is due in the High Court today accusing Sir Keir Starmer, the former Director of Public Prosecutions, of making a political decision not to bring charges against two doctors filmed by the Telegraph agreeing to terminate pregnancies on the grounds of gender.
Back in February 2012, the revelations prompted a public and political outcry which included MPs voting by 181:1 in favour of Fiona Bruce’s Abortion (Sex-Selection) Bill. And yet after a police investigation the Crown Prosecution Service said that whilst there was sufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction, it claimed that it would ‘not be in the public interest’ to bring such a prosecution.
Some regard Northern Ireland being horribly out of step with the rest of the country on matters that have moral and religious dimensions. It may be the only place in the UK where abortion is regulated so tightly, but even though yesterday’s ruling has undoubtedly upset some pro-life groups, it still demonstrates a grave and serious attitude to the ethics of abortion that are increasingly ignored or dismissed elsewhere. In contrast, England, Wales and Scotland find themselves far down a well-greased slope. Can we not see that something has utterly failed when it takes a Christian group to attempt to hold the CPS to account for its apathetic attitude towards an abortion law which has already been repeatedly battered to the point of death?
Northern Ireland is a place where many still believe that we are all knit together in our mother’s womb, wonderfully made in the image of God, valued right from the moment of conception. The result is an attitude that celebrates our humanness and treats it with the respect it deserves even when dealing with painfully difficult scenarios. The eventual outcome of today’s court case in London will go a long way to revealing the depths the rest of this country has sunk to in comparison. If it proves to be the case that doctors can now carry out gender selective abortions without any fear of prosecution whatsoever then the fragile rights of an unborn child will have taken another devastating blow. Those in Northern Ireland should look on and weep.