UK court to rule on Northern Ireland abortion law

Pro-choice activists hailed Thursday's ruling as a victory

The UK's highest court will next week rule on a landmark case challenging Northern Ireland's strict abortion legislation, just days after a landslide referendum backed relaxing termination laws in neighbouring Ireland.

Seven Supreme Court justices in London will announce their decision on June 7, following a hearing last October at which the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) said current laws criminalise "exceptionally vulnerable" women.

The Supreme Court has been asked to rule that prohibition of abortions in cases of rape, incest or "serious foetal abnormality" is unlawful.

A lawyer representing the commission argued that the current law subjects women to "inhuman and degrading" treatment, causing "physical and mental torture" -- in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

Unlike in mainland Britain, abortion is illegal in Northern Ireland except when a woman's life is at risk or there is a permanent or serious danger to her mental or physical health.

The devolved Northern Ireland Assembly voted in February 2016 against legalising abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, rape or incest, and anyone who unlawfully carries out an abortion could be jailed for life.

- Campaigners take abortion pills -

With just a week to go until the Supreme Court ruling, pro-choice campaigners staged a protest outside Northern Ireland's main court buildings.

They took abortion pills in an act of defiance following the Republic of Ireland's vote Friday to repeal its constitutional ban on abortions by a 66 percent majority.

The pills were distributed by a robot controlled from the Netherlands as a way to avoid breaking the law.

"I have taken this in defiance of the extremely outdated, medieval, anti-choice laws that exist in Northern Ireland," said Eleanor Crossey Malone, from socialist feminist movement Rosa, in front of television cameras.

"We are not willing in the wake of (Ireland's) repeal referendum to be left behind any longer."

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

But three of Northern Ireland's most senior judges overturned that decision in June last year, saying it was a question for the elected assembly, not the courts.

Contesting the appeal at the UK's Supreme Court last year, Attorney General John Larkin, the Northern Irish executive's senior legal adviser, said the province's criminal law on abortion was a matter for the "democratic judgment" of the assembly.

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

Pro-choice protestors hold placards during a demonstration calling for abortion to be legalised in Northern Ireland, outside Belfast city hall in Belfast on May 28, 2018