In a historic victory for the pro-choice movement, Belfast’s High Court has ruled that Northern Ireland’s abortion law is incompatible with the UK’s human rights commitments. The case was launched by Sarah Ewart, who was forced to travel to England for a termination after her baby was diagnosed with a fatal abnormality. Here, she shares her story with Stylist.
Sarah Ewart is an unlikely candidate for a figurehead in the Northern Irish abortion rights movement. Softly-spoken with silvery blonde hair, the 29-year-old from Belfast has not even always been pro-choice. Raised in a religious family, she grew up surrounded by a culture that saw all abortions as “morally wrong”, and shared that view until she was in her early 20s.
Yet Ewart’s bravery, tenacity and belief in a woman’s right to choose has now led Belfast’s High Court to hand down a landmark ruling – concluding that Northern Ireland’s restrictive abortion law is in breach of the UK’s human rights commitments. Delivering her judgment, Justice Siobhan Keegan said that she agreed with an earlier ruling by the UK Supreme Court that Northern Ireland’s abortion law was incompatible with article 8 of the European convention on human rights.
The judgement marks the end of a long legal battle by Ewart, who first began trying to change Northern Ireland’s abortion law after she was forced to travel to England for a termination in 2013.
“I’m massively relieved that the judge has ruled in our favour,” says Ewart. “Too many women in Northern Ireland have been put through unnecessary pain by our abortion law.
“For nearly six years now I’ve not only been dealing with the experience of being denied an abortion following a fatal foetal diagnosis during pregnancy, but of being hauled through the courts so that others don’t have to go through the trauma that I did.”
Ewart was pregnant with her much-wanted first child, a daughter, when she was told that the baby had a fatal condition called anencephaly. A major part of her brain and skull were missing, and she would die either before or shortly after birth.
It was a devastating blow to Ewart and her husband Jason, who had married earlier that year. But it was made even more traumatic by what happened next. Under Northern Ireland’s draconian and punitive abortion law, which has been in place since 1861, terminations are banned even in cases of rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormalities.
As a result, doctors informed Ewart that she had no choice but to continue with the pregnancy until the baby passed away in her womb. She was offered a fortnightly scan, and told that she would be brought in to give birth to her daughter once doctors could no longer detect a heartbeat.
The prospect of having to continue with a pregnancy that was guaranteed to end in tragedy was appalling to Ewart. “We were completely shocked and horrified,” she says.
But when Ewart asked the consultants at the hospital in Belfast about the other options available to her, they clammed up, afraid they could be prosecuted for so much as mentioning abortion. “Look, if we could help you, we would,” she recalls medical staff telling her. “We just can’t. We’re facing prison if we do.”
Certain that she could not bear to continue with her pregnancy and equally sure that she wouldn’t be able to end it safely and legally in Northern Ireland, Ewart decided to travel to England for a termination. Thousands of other women have made the same journey since: according to the Department of Health, more than 900 women travelled from Northern Ireland to England for abortions in 2017 alone.
For Ewart, the journey was agonising from start to finish. Outside the Belfast clinic where she made arrangements to travel to London, she was accosted by pro-life protesters who told her that she was a murderer, that she would regret her abortion for the rest of her life, that she would end up with a mental illness.
“People on the street were stopping and staring at us, just in shock at what was going on,” she says. “I was so embarrassed.”
Her time in the English capital was difficult for other reasons. She had never set foot in London before, and felt overwhelmed at attending a clinic staffed by strangers. She felt strongly that she should be allowed to have the procedure in a hospital, given that she was ending her pregnancy for medical reasons, but that option wasn’t available to her.
“It was a very, very scary time,” she says. “Thankfully I had my mum and my husband with me, but I should have had my whole family circle and friends around me. And that just wasn’t the case.”
Upon returning to Belfast, Ewart decided that she wanted to help change the law, so that other women whose babies are diagnosed with fatal foetal abnormalities do not have to go through the same harrowing experience. With her mother, Jane Christie, she spent several years speaking to more than 100 members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, trying to gather support for a change in the law. When this proved fruitless, thanks largely to the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP’s) opposition to abortion reform, she and her mother joined forces with Amnesty to take the matter to the courts.
It has been a long and arduous journey. In 2015, Belfast’s High Court ruled that Northern Ireland’s abortion legislation breaches article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights in cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormalities. But that ruling was overturned in 2017, when the Court of Appeal in Belfast declared that it was up to the Stormont assembly – not the courts – to decide on Northern Ireland’s abortion law.
The issue subsequently went to the UK Supreme Court in June 2018. In a highly unusual move, most of the Supreme Court’s judges publicly stated that Northern Ireland’s abortion law did violate the European Convention on Human Rights. However, the court was unable to hear the case on a legal technicality, as it was not brought by a woman who had personally suffered as a result of the country’s abortion legislation.
And so Ewart put herself on the frontline of the legal battle to liberalise her country’s stance on terminations. In October 2018, she won permission from the Belfast High Court to challenge Northern Ireland’s law surrounding abortions in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities in her own name. And now, finally, she has been victorious.
“This groundbreaking ruling is a huge win for abortion rights in Northern Ireland,” says Grainne Teggart, Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland campaign manager.
“Today’s ruling shows just how urgently we need change, so that we can access this healthcare without having to travel and without being treated as criminals. There can be no delay – we must see free, safe, legal and local abortion services opening up within months.”
In July, MPs in Westminster passed legislation that means abortion must be decriminalised in Northern Ireland in cases of sexual crimes, serious and fatal foetal abnormalities, or where a pregnant woman’s health is at risk.
This will happen unless a functioning Stormont executive (the devolved Northern Irish government) is restored by 21 October – which seems extremely unlikely, since politicians have not sat at Stormont since a power-sharing agreement between Sinn Fein and the DUP collapsed in 2017.
As a result, the High Court in Belfast will now seek further advice about whether it actually needs to make a formal declaration of incompatibility between Northern Ireland’s fatal foetal abnormality abortion law and the UK’s human rights commitments. If terminations are already set to be decriminalised before the month is out, it may be that such a declaration is unnecessary.
You often hear pro-choice campaigners explaining that no one is pro-abortion: instead, they are in favour of women being able to make decisions about their own lives and bodies. Ewart agrees. “I’m not saying everybody who finds themselves with fatal foetal abnormalities should go for a termination,” she says, adding that she “completely admires” anyone who can continue with a pregnancy knowing that their baby is going to die.
“But I just felt that I couldn’t; it wasn’t an option for me. And that’s the key word: options need to be there for women.”
Having to leave Northern Ireland to end her pregnancy made the experience “100%” more traumatic, Ewart says. “Finding out that you’re losing a baby is hard enough to take in. But then to be told that nobody can help you and you’re going to have to go somewhere you don’t know…”
Ultimately, Ewart wants to see terminations in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities carried out in Northern Irish hospitals. “This is medical,” she says. “This is not political and it’s not a religious fight. This is women’s healthcare.”
A version of this article was first published on 5 November 2018 as part of Stylist’s Woman of the Week series. It has been updated throughout.
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