Stalling on abortion law reform North and South

Let me try to offer some context on abortion law, with the health warning that I’m not a lawyer. The law on abortion in both parts of Ireland is in question because of a judgment of the European Court of Human Rights  almost two years ago which I among others drew attention to at the time. Does that ruling compel the Republic and the North to legalise abortion on demand up to 24 weeks or anything like it ? No it does not. Domestic law is supreme.  All signatories to the HR Convention are pledged to abide by it but the Convention and Court recognise wide national latitude. In this case the Wikipedia entry seems a fair interpretation of the December 2010 judgment A.B and C v Ireland

The Court held that “Article 8 cannot… be interpreted as conferring a right to abortion”.[5] It nevertheless considered that Ireland had violated article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights with regard to the third applicant, C. because it was uncertain and unclear whether she could have access to abortion in a situation where she believed that her pregnancy was life threatening

Contrary to the hopes or fears of various campaign groups that the case might become a pan-European clone of the US Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in the case Roe v Wade,[13] the European Court of Human Rights emphasised there is no straightforward right to an abortion under the Convention, and that member states have a broad margin of appreciation to prohibit abortion.[14] However, given the violation of applicant C’s right to privacy, the result is that Ireland may have to further clarify whether and under which circumstances an abortion may be performed to save the life of a pregnant woman.

We are still waiting for a “September” report by a “committee of experts” appointed by the Irish minister of Health ( correction)  to examine the implications of the finding, that C’s rights had been breached by a failure to allow abortion when her life was threatened. Nor was  it clear where she could find out what her rights were. As an Irish Times leader says, the situation in the North is a little more permissive.

The law allows abortion in the North where the mother’s life is at risk or where there is a long-term or permanent risk to her physical or mental health. It is a slightly more permissive situation than the Republic where the mother’s life, rather than just health, must be shown to be threatened. But the South is soon likely to face the same challenge. Will politicians behave differently?

Unsuprisingly the usual suspects are opposed to change and  the Dail parties are clearly divided even on abortion where life is threatened.

How does the 2010 ECHR judgment apply to the North? A nice question and one which I assume is unresolved at least until the guidelines are restored. Will the Assembly parties step up? And what will happen in the Republic?  The stalling can’t go on for ever, can it?


Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London