A court in Belfast has upheld a legal challenge to the British territory's restrictive abortion laws. Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK where the procedure is banned.
Anti-abortion protesters slammed the opening of a private abortion clinic in Northern Ireland in 2012
After months of deliberation, Judge Mark Horner agreed on Monday that women and girls should be able to access legal terminations in cases of rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormalities.
Judge Horner said the "rights of women in Northern Ireland who are pregnant with fatal foetal abnormalities or who are pregnant as a result of sexual crime are breached" by the current law.
He said that in cases where a foetus cannot survive outside the womb "there is no life to protect". He added that prohibiting abortion in cases of assault "completely ignores the personal circumstances" of innocent victims of crimes.
Northern Ireland's Human Rights Commission had filed the legal challenge to the current law.
No change yet
Northern Ireland's Attorney General is to challenge the ruling, local media reported.
Currently, the law in Northern Ireland only allows abortion where the life or mental health of the mother is in danger. Doctors in the British territory who perform abortions outside the limitations face up to life in prison.
Despite the restrictions, at least one private abortion clinic operates in Belfast.
Monday's ruling does not change the law and any future reform will have to be debated by the territory's parliament, where there is significant political opposition.
But Judge Horner asked parties to consider whether the ruling can be applied under current legislation.
Despite the additional hurdles, Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission hailed what they called a landmark ruling.
"Today's result is historic, and will be welcomed by many of the vulnerable women and girls who have been faced with these situations," the group's chief commissioner Les Allamby said in a statement.
But anti-abortion campaigner Bernadette Smyth expressed disappointment, adding that "we must protect the rights of the unborn child."
Some analysts believe Monday's ruling will have an impact on the debate in the Republic of Ireland where the law is just as strict.
A complete ban on abortion was only lifted in 2013 when terminations were allowed if a mother's life was in danger.
The restrictions have meant that thousands of pregnant women travel to British mainland for abortions each year.
mm/ (AFP, dpa, Reuters)