DUP opposes UK intervention to speed up NI abortion services

DUP opposes UK intervention to speed up NI abortion services

What Just Happened?

The topic of abortion has for many decades sparked controversy in Northern Ireland. In more recent years the laws have changed and now the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is attempting to reamend them[1]. Simultaneously, the Northern Ireland (NI) Human Rights Commission is taking legal action against the Northern Ireland secretary, the Stormont Executive and Northern Ireland’s Department of Health over the delay in commissioning abortion services.[2]

What does this mean?

In June 2018 the NI Human Rights Commission lost its appeal to the Supreme Court over the legality of NI’s abortion laws, with the judges stating that the case would have to be brought by a woman who was pregnant as a result of sexual crime or who was carrying a foetus with a fatal abnormality[3].

Sarah Ewart (a women in Northern Ireland who was denied an abortion despite being told her pregnancy had fatal foetal diagnosis[4]) then began a court case in her own name in January 2019, where the High Court ruled in her favour. Following this MPs at Westminster backed an amendment to the Northern Ireland Executive Formation Bill that made significant changes to Northern Irelands abortion laws during the absence of devolution[5].

However, although the law was passed over a year ago limited action has occurred to implement it. Leading to NI Human Rights Commission taking legal action against Stormont and Westminster[6] in a bid to force the laws to be implemented. The case is set to take place at Belfast High Court on 26 and 27 May 2021.

The DUP, which strongly opposed the changes in 2019 to the abortion laws have proposed a piece of legislation at Stormont that seeks to prevent abortions in cases of non-fatal disabilities in an attempt to once again amend the abortion laws[7].

The UK government has signalled its intent to give Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis new powers to compel Stormont to implement abortion laws[8]. The DUP responded that they would “vigorously oppose” any further legislative action over abortion in the region[9].

How does this impact the legal sector?

The 1967 Abortion Act that made terminations legal in Great Britain for up to 24 weeks in most circumstance was never extended to Northern Ireland. Until recently the only abortions that were allowed were if the women’s life was at risk or there was a permanent and serious damage to her mental or physical health,[10] making the vast majority of abortions a criminal offence. This means that many women have to travel to England for an abortion or are forced to turn to unregistered potentially dangerous services.

                  Due to limited resources Northern Trust (who have been providing interim provision of abortion services) have had to close their early medical abortion services, leaving a third of NI without access [11]. The added pressure from the Covid-19 pandemic has left the Trust struggling to cope. This has also made it neither a safe nor viable option for women to travel to England to access these services.

The issue of access to abortion concerns a range of human rights, across several of the international treaties signed and ratified by the UK government. Including but not limited to; the right to the highest attainable standard of health (World Health Organization Constitution 1946)[12]; the right to freedom from inhumane and degrading treatment (Article 3 ECHR), the right to private and family life (Article 8 ECHR); and non-discrimination (Article 14 ECHR).[13] By limiting the access to abortion services in Northern Ireland the UK government is breaching human rights of women.          


Written by Isabella Hunter

The Legists Content Team

Assessing firms

#LeighDay #Allen&Overy #Slater&Gordan #IrwinMitchell #KingselNapley #BindmansLPP


[1] Jayne McCormack, ‘Abortion in NI: Timeline of key events’ BBC News (London, 19 March 2021)

[2] BBC News ‘Abortion in NI: Women subject to ‘postcode lottery’’ BBC News (London, 21 October 2020)

[3] IBID [1]

[4] ‘Northern Ireland abortion: High Court to rule on Sarah Ewart case’ (Amnesty International UK, 1 October 2019) < https://www.amnesty.org.uk/press-releases/northern-ireland-abortion-high-court-rule-sarah-ewart-case> accessed 22 March 2021

[5] IBID [1]

[6] Jayne McCormack, ‘Abortion: UK government to compel Stormont to implement new laws’ BBC News (London, 19 March 2021)

[7] IBID [2]

[8] IBID [6]

[9] Jessica Elgot, ‘DUP will ‘vigorously oppose’ UK intervention to speed up NI abortion service’ The Guardian (London, 18 Mar 2021)

[10] IBID [1]

[11] IBID [2]

[12] ‘Human rights and health’ (World Health Organization, 29 December 2017) < https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/human-rights-and-health> accessed 22 March 2021

[13] European Convention on Human Rights, Rome, 4.XI. 1950



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