Reading narratives of privilege and paternalism: the limited utility of human rights law on the journey to reform Northern Irish abortion law

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Lynsey Mitchell


abortion, women’s rights, European Convention on Human Rights, international human rights law, Northern Ireland, CEDAW, devolution, legal paternalism


This article argues that a gendered conceptualisation of rights means that an invisible barrier had to be surmounted when attempting to frame denial of access to abortion in Northern Ireland as a human rights violation. It considers the Supreme Court decisions of In the matter of an application by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission for Judicial Review (Northern Ireland) and R (on the application of A and B) v Secretary of State for Health; examines what they reveal about the potentiality of human rights law to advance women’s rights; and analyses the limited success of human rights litigation in securing reproductive rights for Northern Irish women. It posits that the reason for this is the continued framing of abortion in the United Kingdom as a paternalistic privilege permitted to women only in limited scenarios and locations. It demonstrates how courts implicitly endorse this framing and consequently exclude women’s victimhood from the human rights framework.

Abstract 485 | NILQ 72.1.4 Mitchell Downloads 137