Thursday, April 25, 2024
HomeNewsAndrew Tettenborn: The Left rides roughshod over Ulster’s abortion laws

Andrew Tettenborn: The Left rides roughshod over Ulster’s abortion laws


Funny, how the Left is so keen on devolution until it involves giving power to those who disagree with it. A case in point, previously referred to in TCW here and here, is abortion in Northern Ireland, again in the news this last week.

In England the abortion regime under the Abortion Act 1967 is very liberal. But public opinion in NI has always been different. The Act has never applied in NI, and termination is allowed there only in cases of imminent and very serious risk to life or health. The result is, of course, a running campaign by the Left and others to impose uniformity and bring NI into liberal line with the rest of us whether it likes it or not.

The headline news on Thursday concerned one skirmish in the battle: the Government had been forced to back down in the face of a clear Commons majority for allowing NI women to access abortion for free in England, even though the operation would be illegal – and therefore obviously unavailable free or otherwise – there.

This is a decision regretted by many TCW readers, this one included, if only because the Abortion Act 1967 itself arguably goes too far, and in any case what limits it does impose are routinely disregarded. One might also object, as an English taxpayer, to funding terminations for those whose only connection with England is that they have come here to get rid of a baby they don’t want. But at least this was an honourable defeat. The motion was put by the honest, if misguided, Stella Creasey: and the decision was reached by impeccably democratic means once heads had been counted.

Simultaneously, however, there was some interesting news from Belfast.

By way of background, in 2015 a combination of once admirable but now rather unpleasant organisations, such as Marie Stopes and Amnesty International, together with a number of groups such as the Royal College of Midwives that ought to have known better, teamed up with the NI Human Rights Commission in order to pick a fight with the NI Government. Their aim, as ever, was to remove the issue of abortion from the democratic and political process, which had produced a result they didn’t like, and remould it in their own ungodly image.

How? Easy: go to court and invoke human rights. Even though the ambit of the ECHR has long ceased to be limited to dealing with seriously important rights whose infringement everyone accepted made a country unfit to be accepted in the community of nations (for recent trivial cases see here and here), too many people still accept that once you grace a claim with the name of a “human right” it must for that reason be outside and above democracy and devolution, and governments must simply do as they are told by the liberal elite. So why not use this to bounce Westminster into taking charge of abortion, whatever Belfast thought?

With this in mind, this coalition of the great, the good and the plain bossy went to court and argued that, at least where pregnancy was due to illegal activity (including under-age sex), there was a human right to have an abortion under Art 8 of the ECHR – you know, the provision that protects family life (!). Much to the glee of the Guardian, which saw a chance to bring the recalcitrant people of NI to heel, they succeeded in the High Court. But the NI Court of Appeal on Thursday reversed that decision. Moreover it has done so, much to the annoyance of the Establishment, for the right reason: namely, that this was a matter where, whatever they might personally think, judges should give a very wide margin to the democratic process as a means of settling such matters.

This isn’t the end of it, of course. Amnesty International, with its usual respect for local decision-making, called the decision an “insult to women”, said that the judges had “had a chance to put right centuries of human rights abuse but with a flick of the pen they’ve just let down another generation of women and girls” – as if judges were a sort of surrogate legislature to be used if the real one doesn’t come up to snuff – and called for immediate Westminster legislation if power-sharing talks at Stormont break down. And it wasn’t only Amnesty. One worthy from the Royal College of Midwives, revealing that organisation’s true views on democracy, called the decision of judges to defer to the political process on a matter of delicate moral and social policy “the most blatant example of judicial buck-passing I have ever seen.”

There will, of course, be an appeal to the Supreme Court. Which way it will go is anyone’s guess (the personnel of the court is due for changes). No doubt this will be encouraged strongly by Labour and the other opposition parties in Parliament, for the cynical reason that if they can get the decision reversed this will have a useful potential to strain relations between the UK Government and the DUP.

One obviously hopes the Supremes will back the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal and, for that matter, the constitutional position of Northern Ireland. But if they don’t we must urge all Tory MPs to stand shoulder to shoulder here, as in the case of votes for prisoners, and politely decline to change the law unless and until the properly-elected Assembly in Belfast decides to do so. Whether they will, of course, remains to be seen.

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Andrew Tettenborn
Andrew Tettenborn
Andrew Tettenborn is a professor of commercial law at a well-known UK university, who also teaches in Europe and elsewhere. In the 2001 General Election he stood as Ukip’s candidate in Bath.

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