Supreme Court grants Humanists UK permission to intervene in Northern Ireland abortion case

The Supreme Court has granted permission to Humanists UK to intervene in a case due to be heard before it later this month on the abortion regime in Northern Ireland. The case, which has been brought by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, is arguing that abortion should be legal in the cases of (i) women with pregnancies where the foetus cannot survive birth, (ii) women whose pregnancies arise from rape or incest, and (iii) women with serious malformation of the foetus. Humanists UK is intervening in support of the Commission.

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. This important appeal will be heard on 24-26 October, in the week that the rest of the UK will be 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.

The Supreme Court has granted Humanists UK permission to intervene in this case by filing written evidence and submissions and making oral submissions at the hearing. Evidence has been filed from three eminent philosophers and Humanists UK supporters: 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 compelling categories highlighted by the case.

The appeal will be heard by a panel of seven Supreme Court Justices, including newly appointed President of the Supreme Court, Lady Hale, and the Northern Irish Justice, Lord Kerr.

Andrew Copson, Humanists UK Chief Executive, said: ‘It is simply outrageous that even in the extreme circumstances this case deals with, women in Northern Ireland still are not able to access legal and safe abortions. With the lack of any political will in Northern Ireland to sort this matter out, it is right that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission has taken the subject to the courts, to ensure that every woman’s autonomy and dignity are respected, and human rights are upheld. We will be doing our utmost to ensure this challenge succeeds.’

Janet Farrell, solicitor at Bhatt Murphy representing Humanists UK, said: ‘This is a vitally important case for women and girls in Northern Ireland for whom access to lawful and safe abortions is long overdue. The exceptions to the current restrictive regime proposed by the Commission are extremely compelling, and the denial of those rights to date is an indictment of the equality, autonomy, and dignity of women in Northern Ireland. In this the 50th year of the Abortion Act 1967, this situation must come to an end.’


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.

The case will be heard before seven Supreme Court judges over 3 days (24-26 October 2017): Lady Hale, Lord Mance, Lord Kerr, Lord Wilson, Lord Reed, Lady Black, and Lord Lloyd-Jones.

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

A termination in Northern Ireland 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 (Family Planning Association of Northern Ireland v Minister of Health and Social Services and Public Safety [2004] NICA 37 (paragraph 12)).

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 the case. 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. But this reversal still doesn’t mean Northern Ireland women can access free abortions in Northern Ireland itself, instead having to face the burden of travelling to Britain. The upcoming case focuses on access to abortion services in Northern Ireland.

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.

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

At Humanists UK, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. Our work brings non-religious people together to develop their own views, helping people be happier and more fulfilled in the one life we have. Through our ceremonies, education services, and community and campaigning work, we strive to create a fair and equal society for all.

Humanists UK recently changed its name from the British Humanist Association:

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