Northern Ireland

NI abortion law: Ruling 'could allow' terminations for girls under 16

A teenage girl holding a pregnancy test Image copyright Katarzyna Bialasiewicz
Image caption The assembly "may choose to restrict what the judge said" when putting his ruling into law, Prof Brice Dickson says

A High Court ruling on abortion law could mean every girl under the age of 16 who becomes pregnant in Northern Ireland has a right to a termination, the human rights commissioner has said.

A judge ruled on Monday that Northern Ireland's legislation on the issue is in breach of human rights law.

He said grounds for abortion should be extended to include pregnancies resulting from sexual crime.

The legal age of sexual consent in Northern Ireland is 16.

The current law in Northern Ireland only allows an abortion in cases where a woman's life is at risk or there is a permanent or serious risk to her mental or physical health.

Defines

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) brought a legal challenge of the abortion law, seeking its extension to cases involving serious foetal malformation and pregnancies caused by rape or incest.

Les Allamby, the NIHRC's chief commissioner, said girls under 16 who become pregnant are victims of sexual crime "regardless if the father of the child is subsequently prosecuted or not".

Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption Les Allamby said it was important that those under 16 were given a chance to have their view heard

He said the judge's ruling was a recognition of that, and added that if the ruling was enacted it would give girls the choice of an abortion.

"In human rights law terms, children and young people have the right to be heard and listened to," Mr Allamby said.

"I think it's very important that a 14 or 15-year-old has a chance to outline her own mind and be taken seriously every bit as much as somebody who is 17, 18 or much older.

"The matter would be for the woman or the girl to choose whether she wished to access a termination."

Disquieting

Brice Dickson, a professor of law at Queen's University in Belfast, said the Northern Ireland Assembly "may choose to restrict what the judge said" when putting the judgement into law.

"It may confine these cases to rape and not to sexual activity with a child," Prof Dickson said.

"It will all come down to what the legislation, which ultimately is required to be put in place, says and how it defines a sexual crime."

Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption Anti-abortion campaigner Bernadette Smyth said the ruling would see "the opening of the floodgates" for abortions

Anti-abortion campaigners were critical of the judge's ruling, with Bernadette Smyth, of the Precious Life group, said it had been an "undemocratic decision".

She added: "It will clearly see, long term, the opening of the floodgates."

The ruling left a "a very grey area" on the issue of allowing abortions for girls under 16, according to Marion Woods, of the anti-abortion group LIFE Northern Ireland.

"We would be concerned that a blanket ruling that covers everybody causes too much confusion, which is why we would be saying the law should not be changed at all because it does cause too much confusion," Ms Woods said.

"As we unpick the difficulties, we are seeing that this will eventually dig down to abortion on demand."

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