The High Court in Belfast, in a landmark ruling delivered Monday, said that an outright ban on abortion in Northern Ireland is “incompatible with human rights.” The judgment could lead to relaxation of the strict anti-abortion laws in the region, which currently prohibit abortion in all cases except where the life or mental health of the mother is in danger.
The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC), which brought the case before the court, said, in a statement, that the ruling may lead to women being allowed to have abortions in cases of fatal fetal abnormalities, rape and incest “without being criminalized for doing so.”
“Today’s result is historic, and will be welcomed by many of the vulnerable women and girls who have been faced with these situations,” NIHRC Chief Commissioner Les Allamby said, in the statement. “It was important for the Commission to take this challenge in its own name, in order to protect women and girls in Northern Ireland and we are delighted with the result.”
Northern Ireland is currently the only part of the U.K. where the 1967 Abortion Act, which legalized abortion for up to 24 weeks of pregnancy, does not apply. Under the region’s 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, carrying out abortions in Northern Irish hospitals could lead to medical staff being jailed for life.
Women who want to get an abortion are, therefore, forced to travel to England, which NIHRC said amounted to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.
The judgment comes just months after the court took submissions from several organizations and individuals, including legal representatives for a 24-year-old woman named Sarah Ewart, who went public with her experience of traveling to England for an abortion in 2013 after being told that the fetus she was carrying had severe brain malformation and would not survive outside the womb.