The Supreme Court has dismissed an appeal which sought to allow Northern Irish women receive free abortions on the NHS in England.
It was brought forward by a woman who became pregnant when she was 15 but couldn’t obtain a termination in Northern Ireland due to its stricter regulations.
She travelled to Britain with her mother in 2012, undergoing the procedure at a private abortion clinic at the cost of approximately £900.
The case was brought against Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt who had conceded that he had the scope to enable Northern Irish residents obtain abortions for free in England.
However, the Supreme Court did not view his actions as “unlawful” and voted against the appeal by a narrow majority of three to two.
In Northern Ireland, abortions are only permitted if the woman’s life is in danger or there is a permanent or serious risk to her physical or mental health.
They cannot legally be performed in cases of rape, incest or instances of fatal foetal abnormality.
Lord Wilson, who delivered the ruling, expressed his sympathy at their “deeply unenviable position” but said it was not for the court to “address the ethical considerations which underlie the difference” in the law regarding abortion in Northern Ireland and England.
He explained that, under the terms of devolution, the separate authorities in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are responsible for providing free services to those who live there.
Therefore, Mr Hunt acted “in line with this scheme for local decision-making” and was “entitled to afford respect to the democratic decision of the people of Northern Ireland not to fund abortion services”.
Lord Wilson, along with Lord Reed and Lord Hughes, voted to reject the appeal whereas Lady Kale and Lord Kerr sought to uphold it.
However, Lord Wilson noted that he understood the “embarrassment, difficulty and uncertainty” Northern Irishwomen face when travelling to Britain for abortions, particularly since they have to raise funds to pay for them.
In spite of the decision, the mother and daughter – who cannot be named for legal reasons – said they were pleased that two judges had found in their favour while the entire panel had been sympathetic to their situation.
“We have come this far and fought hard because the issues are so important for women in Northern Ireland. For this reason, we will do all that we can to take the fight further,” they said in a joint statement.
“We have instructed our legal team to file an application with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg, to protect the human rights of the many other women who make the lonely journey to England every week because they are denied access to basic healthcare services in their own country.”
Angela Jackman, the solicitor who represented the mother and daughter, said the case highlighted the importance of the ECHR since the judges were so split on the issue of whether there had been a breach of human rights or not.
“The time is ripe to seek further redress for the women of Northern Ireland who have such limited reproductive rights,” she added.
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