A ruling that Northern Ireland's strict abortion regime is incompatible with human rights law will be "clearly heard", the British government has said.

A majority of Supreme Court judges in London expressed the clear opinion that the legislation is at odds with European law in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, rape and incest.

The UK 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland and the procedure is only permitted if a woman's life is endangered or if there is a risk of serious damage to her mental or physical health.

Northern Ireland Secretary of State Karen Bradley told the House of Commons: "No formal declaration has been made by the court and the appeal has been dismissed.

"But the analysis and comments from the court on the issue of incompatibility will be clearly heard by this House and politicians in Northern Ireland."

Most of the seven-strong panel of justices in London ruled that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) had no legal standing to bring its challenge.

The judges therefore did not make a formal declaration of incompatibility, which would usually produce change in the law.


Read: More NI women travelling for abortion to England, Wales


Outside court Bernadette Smyth, director of Northern Ireland-based anti-abortion campaign group Precious Life, said: "What happened here today was upholding democracy. This court made a ruling that this court has no right to make decisions for Northern Ireland.

"Regardless of their opinions, this is a law in Northern Ireland and that is where these decisions should be made."

Human Rights Commission chief commissioner Les Allamby said the law needed to change to stop women and girls from suffering further anxiety and suffering.

"In the absence of the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly it falls to the UK government to make this change and it must act without delay."

Dawn McAvoy, from Northern Ireland campaign group Both Lives Matter, said there was no legal requirement for a law change.

"The court did not find a human right to end a human life," she said.

Grainne Teggart, Amnesty International Northern Ireland campaigner, said all eyes were on the UK government.

She said: "Theresa May can no longer sit back and do nothing whilst countless women continue to suffer on her watch.

"This must be the final nail in the coffin for Northern Ireland's abortion ban."

Law 'criminalises vulnerable women, girls'

The NIHRC had argued that the current law criminalises "exceptionally vulnerable" women and girls and subjects them to "inhuman and degrading" treatment.

During a hearing last year it asked the Supreme Court to rule that a prohibition on abortions where a pregnancy arises from rape or incest, or "involves a serious foetal abnormality", is unlawful.

Seven Supreme Court justices in London announced their decision this morning, at a time of intense political debate on the issue. The ruling by the panel of judges follows a hearing last year.

During proceedings in October, the NIHRC told the court the current law criminalises "exceptionally vulnerable" women and girls and subjects them to "inhuman and degrading" treatment.

During the three-day appeal hearing, a QC representing the commission argued that human rights were being breached, with those affected being forced to go through "physical and mental torture".

The Supreme Court was asked to rule that a prohibition on abortions where a pregnancy arises from rape or incest, or "involves a serious foetal abnormality", is unlawful.

The NIHRC claimed the law's effect on women is incompatible with rights under the European Convention on Human Rights.

Contesting the appeal, the Stormont Executive's senior legal adviser, Attorney General John Larkin QC, said Northern Ireland's criminal law on abortion is a matter for the "democratic judgment" of the legislature.

The legislature, he said, "has struck the proportionate balance required for the protection of the rights of women and unborn children".

Abortion is illegal in Northern Ireland except where a woman's life is at risk or there is a permanent or serious danger to her mental or physical health.

Anyone who unlawfully carries out an abortion could be jailed for life.

Belfast's High Court made a declaration in December 2015 that the law was incompatible with Article 8 of the ECHR - the right to respect for private and family life - because of the absence of exceptions to the general prohibition on abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities and pregnancies resulting from sexual offences.

That decision was overturned in June last year by three of Northern Ireland's most senior judges.

The appeal judges said the law in Northern Ireland should be left to the Stormont Assembly and not judges, saying the complex moral and religious questions behind the issue should be determined by a legislature rather than a court.