The Northern Ireland Office (NIO) was advised in May 1985 that the region’s restrictive prohibitions on abortion could be at risk of a successful legal challenge taken through the European Court of Human Rights.
Four years earlier, gay rights activist Jeff Dudgeon had won a landmark case when the court ruled that the criminalisation of homosexual acts violated his right to respect for his private and family life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The case led to a change of the law on homosexuality in 1982.
Asked about whether the lack of abortion facilities might also be held to breach the convention, UK Foreign Office lawyer Audrey Glover advised in 1985 that “it is quite likely therefore that if a complaint were to be made about the law of abortion in Northern Ireland under Article 8 of the Convention and Article 14 read in conjunction with Article 8 that the Commission and the Court would adopt the same approach as they did in Dudgeon”.
Informed in subsequent correspondence that abortion was available in circumstances where continuing with a pregnancy “would make a woman a physical or mental wreck”, Ms Glover stuck by her assessment, noting there was still no provision for abortion if continuing with a pregnancy “would injure the existing children physically or mentally, or if there is a substantial risk that the child if born would suffer from abnormalities”.
The foreign office lawyer advised “there would be a strong possibility that an applicant could successfully claim that her private life has been interfered with if she were unable to obtain an abortion in either of those situations... and that there is discrimination between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK in those circumstances”.
Despite the advice, the NIO continued to resist pressure to reform the law, arguing in 1993: “We would not be prepared to introduce any measure to change the law unless it was likely to command broad public support.” MPs voted to legalise abortion in Northern Ireland in 2019, but Stormont did not take any steps to put abortion services in place.
Earlier this month, Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton-Harris ordered the North’s Department of Health to formally commission abortion services.