A pro-choice rally in Belfast last month

Belfast’s High Court ruled on Thursday that Northern Ireland’s strict abortion laws are incompatible with the United Kingdom’s human rights commitments, in the latest of a series of legal victories for abortion rights campaigners in the region.

British-ruled Northern Ireland has some of the tightest abortion restrictions in the world, banning abortion except when a mother’s life is at risk, but a change in the law appears inevitable soon.

Thursday’s case was brought by a Belfast woman, Sarah Ewart, who travelled to Britain for an abortion after being told her baby would not survive outside the womb.

“I am massively relieved… Too many women in Northern Ireland have been put through unnecessary pain by our abortion law,” Ewart said in a statement.

Pressure has mounted to ease Northern Ireland’s abortion rules after the neighbouring Irish Republic voted overwhelmingly last year to repeal a similarly restrictive ban. That referendum demonstrated a stark change in attitudes on an island once known for its religious conservatism.

Northern Ireland’s regional government has not functioned since a power-sharing agreement between mainly Protestant and Catholic political parties collapsed in 2017. The British parliament voted in July in favour of a plan that would decriminalise abortion in the region if its local government has not been re-established by Oct. 21.

In the unlikely event that the change of the abortion law is not imposed by London, Thursday’s ruling means the Belfast court could take steps that would force lawmakers to act.

Abortion rights were long opposed in Northern Ireland by religious conservatives in both the Protestant community that supports continued British rule and the Catholic community that favours union with the strongly Catholic Irish Republic.

But opinion has changed in recent years. In the Irish Republic, the Catholic Church’s influence has rapidly eroded because of shifting cultural norms and scandals involving mistreatment of children in orphanages and Church sexual abuse.

The British Supreme Court last year made a similar ruling that abortion law in Northern Ireland was incompatible with commitments under the European Convention on Human Rights, although it stopped short of compelling a change in the law because the case had not been brought by an identified victim.


REUTERS
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