Northern Ireland Government working group recommends legal abortion for fatal foetal abnormality

The Northern Ireland Government has published a report of its ‘inter-Departmental working group on termination of pregnancies in fatal fetal abnormality cases’, recommending a change to the law prohibiting abortions in cases of fatal foetal abnormality (FFA), where the foetus is unlikely to reach full gestation, or die during or shortly after birth. The report has been published as the Supreme Court is due to pass judgment on whether current restrictions on abortion in such cases breach human rights. Northern Ireland Humanists welcomes this report as a step in the right direction, but cautions that it doesn’t go far enough in the range of situations it considers. Its publication should not affect the ability of the Supreme Court to rule on this issue.

The report states that in the opinion of health professionals, maintaining current restrictions on abortion in cases of FFA is ‘professionally untenable.’ It concludes that ‘retaining the existing legal constraints would continue to place an unacceptable burden on women's health and wellbeing’ and further that ‘one of the most compelling cases for change was the overall recognition by those health professionals who spoke to the group that the existing legal framework prevents them from fully meeting their duty of care to all women in this situation and therefore denies those women who wish to terminate the pregnancy, access to proper standards of health care.’

Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator commented, ‘We are pleased to see that the Northern Ireland Government’s working group has put forward such strong evidence from the medical profession that a change in the law is urgently needed to meet the health care needs of women facing a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality.

‘However, this report does not go far enough. It doesn’t address whether maintaining such restrictions is a human rights violation. Nor does it consider terminations in other cases, such as pregnancies that arise from sexual crime. Both foetal abnormality and sexual crime are being considered by the Supreme Court in a case that has been brought by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commision and in which Humanists UK intervened. We hope that the timing of the publication of this report assists and does not hinder the handing down of a comprehensive, positive judgment in that case, which is expected shortly.’


For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson on or 0781 55 89 636, or Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator on or on 07470 395090.

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Read more about Humanists UK’s campaigns work on abortion:

About the Supreme Court case

The law governing abortion in Northern Ireland is one of the most restrictive in Europe, such that abortion is unlawful in all but the most extreme cases. The criminal sanctions imposed are amongst the harshest in the world, with the maximum sentence being life imprisonment. A termination is only lawful when it constitutes a threat to a woman’s life or a serious, permanent, or long term effect on her physical or mental health. The NIHRC hopes this case will extend that to pregnancies involving sexual crime and serious or fatal foetal abnormalities. The case saw the NIHRC succeed at the High Court in 2015, only to then have this overturned by the Court of Appeal this June.

The case has been heard before seven Supreme Court judges over three days (24-26 October 2017): newly appointed President of the Supreme Court, Lady Hale; Northern Irish Justice, Lord Kerr; and Lord Mance, Lord Wilson, Lord Reed, Lady Black, and Lord Lloyd-Jones.

It has been heard in the week that the rest of the UK is celebrating the historic 50th anniversary of the Abortion Act 1967. That Act enabled access to reproductive services in a wide variety of circumstances in England, Scotland, and Wales, but it was excluded from applying in Northern Ireland.

In a separate case in June, in a 3-2 ruling, the Supreme Court dismissed a challenge to the fact that women from Northern Ireland couldn’t access abortion services for free on the NHS in England. Humanists UK intervened in that case too. However, having won the case, subsequently the Secretary of State for Health in England chose to reverse his policy on the matter, and allow free abortions on the NHS after all. The Scottish and Welsh governments then did the same. On Monday the UK Government announced that there will be financial assistance for travel and accommodation for those traveling to England who need it most.

But this reversal still doesn’t mean Northern Ireland women can access free abortions in Northern Ireland itself; the Supreme Court case focuses on access to abortion services in Northern Ireland.

About Humanists UK’s intervention

Humanists UK has provided written legal submissions, given oral submissions to the Court, and has also provided evidence from three eminent philosophers and Humanists UK patrons: Professor A.C. Grayling, Professor of Philosophy and Master of the New College of the Humanities; Professor John Harris, Professor Emeritus of Bioethics at the University of Manchester; and Professor Simon Blackburn, retired Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge. Their evidence concerns the philosophical concepts of autonomy, choice, dignity, and suffering, the absence of a compelling moral case for the almost total ban on abortion in Northern Ireland, and the absence of exemptions in the three serious categories highlighted by the case.

Humanists UK is represented by solicitor Janet Farrell (Bhatt Murphy) and barristers Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC, Fiona Murphy and Mary-Rachel McCabe (Doughty Street Chambers).

Caoilfhionn’s oral submissions are available for viewing on the Supreme Court website (from 1 hr 45 mins).

Humanists UK has long campaigned in defence of women’s reproductive rights and has intervened in other cases concerning Northern Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws. Humanists UK’s policies and approach to abortion are informed by its ethical position which supports a woman’s right to dignity and personal autonomy and accordingly to access a safe and lawful abortion with appropriate secular counselling and after-care should she choose to do so. Humanists UK has successfully campaigned to oppose changes to the law in England and Wales that seek to restrict access to abortion. It is a member of the Voice for Choice coalition, the We Trust Women campaign, and the Back Off campaign. Its section Northern Ireland Humanists is a member of the Trust Women coalition, coordinated by Alliance for Choice. In September 2017 Humanists UK spoke out against the restrictive abortion laws enforced in many countries around the world as part of the 36th regular session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva.

Northern Ireland Humanists is a part of Humanists UK, working with the Humanist Association of Ireland.