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UK Supreme Court criticizes Northern Ireland abortion laws

Stella Creasy in the House of Commons on Monday afternoon  Credit

However, a majority of the seven judges presiding over the appeal declared that Northern Ireland's law on abortion is "incompatible" with Human Rights Law.

The UK Supreme Court has dismissed an appeal by human rights campaigners hoping to decriminalise Northern Ireland's strict abortion law.

By a majority decision, the justices said that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC), which brought the appeal, did not have the power to "institute abstract proceedings of this nature".

Despite the obvious point that the Northern Ireland Assembly has not been in existence for over a year and doesn't look likely return in the near future, and the fact that it failed to act for many years before then, the fundamental point is that access to abortion is a human rights issue.

"The commission had argued the law criminalizes vulnerable women and girls and subjects them to inhumane and degrading treatment in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights", NPR's Debbie Elliott reports. One group of activists drove around Northern Ireland distributing abortion pills.

As a result, the judges did not make a formal declaration of incompatibility, which would normally lead to a change in the law. It voted against legislating in cases of fatal fetal abnormality and rape in February 2016 and the assembly has not sat since the devolved government collapsed in January 2017.

"This is hugely significant and makes clear there is nowhere left for the government to hide on this issue".

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She called for the United Kingdom and Irish governments to then come together under a body called the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference to discuss how to change the laws on terminations.

The referendum reignited a debate about Northern Ireland's law, with some calling for reform while others - including the biggest party, the Democratic Unionist Party - remain opposed to changing the law.

"All eyes are now on those respective bodies to ensure that immediate action is taken to bring this vacuum of human rights protection to an immediate end".

The ruling on a technicality will come as a relief for U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, who previously said that the province should decide its own abortion policy.

"We recognize there are strongly-held views on all sides of the debate in Northern Ireland and that's why our focus is on restoring that democratically accountable, devolved government", Downing Street said after the meeting. "A failure to act would be a cruel betrayal of women".

Northern Ireland Secretary of State Karen Bradley told the Commons, the U.K.'s directly-elected lower house, the issue "should be decided by the people of Northern Ireland".

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