I got in trouble for arguing with a pro-life campaigner at school, now I’m a barrister in the Northern Irish abortion law case

Supreme Court ruled in Jeremy Hunt’s favour this week, now all eyes are on Strasbourg

Passion is everything at the bar; Doughty Street Chambers’ Jude Bunting knows that well.

“I remember being at school in Northern Ireland, where I’m from, and they brought in a pro-life campaigner to give us abortion education,” he tells us. Just 15 at the time, Bunting recalls: “I had an argument with her and the whole year was kept behind after school.”

Not only an early but vital step in his journey to a wildly successful career as a barrister (“I realised I liked arguing and getting everyone to agree with me!”), this incident was a precursor to Bunting building a successful practice in a rather niche area of law: abortion.

It’s a topic on people’s minds this week thanks to a landmark Supreme Court ruling. The court on Wednesday decided by a majority of just 3:2 — much to pro-choicers dismay — that Secretary of State for Health Jeremy Hunt had not broken the law by denying Northern Irish women free abortions on the NHS. This ruling reinforced the status quo that women not normally resident in England must pay if they wish to obtain an abortion in England.

Bunting was one of the key legal personalities in this case. He acted alongside lead counsel Helen Mountfield QC for five abortion/birth rights organisations — Alliance for Choice, British Pregnancy Advisory Service, Birthrights, Family Planning Association and Abortion Support Network — who jointly intervened. (An interesting side note: Birthrights is run by Matrix Chambers barrister Elizabeth Prochaska.)

Supporting the case’s claimant (a 20-year-old Northern Irish woman who paid for a private English abortion aged 15), Bunting and Mountfield stressed the five-justice bench should consider fundamental values underpinning our legal system. These include autonomy, equality and respect for human dignity.

Though the argument received a firm nod in Lady Hale’s judgment (para 93), Lords Wilson, Reed and Hughes seemed enamoured by the government’s case and the appeal was lost. A pro bono intervention which Bunting dedicated weeks to; was he disappointed? No doubt — but that doesn’t mean the experience wasn’t positive for him.

It was “an honour”, in fact. Engaged with their message since he was a schoolchild, Bunting thinks his clients are phenomenal people doing very heroic work — and his fellow lawyers aren’t too shabby either. He describes lead counsel Mountfield as a “breath of fresh air”, and says working with (since retired) Leigh Day partner and human rights campaigner Richard Stein was “a real treat”.

The case also afforded Bunting — who specialises in police law and administrative law, among other things — the opportunity to act in the highest court in the land. Though not for the first time since he was called in 2006, Bunting realises making arguments before the country’s most senior judges is something many law students and young advocates only dream of. On this, he comments:

The Supreme Court is a wonderful place. It’s more engaged than other courts; you’re close to the judges and you’re all on the same level. It’s high pressure but it’s also quite informal, and you end up cutting through a lot of the faff.

Of course, it’s an intimidating place to be too. Bunting, a graduate of Hertford College, Oxford, continues:

If you’re on your own without a leader, you’re stood next to some of the cleverest people in the world… [I]t’s a real test as an advocate. But that’s why you do this job, to push yourself and use legal skills to help your client.

And that’s just what Bunting intends to keep doing. The unsuccessful appellants have expressed an intention to appeal this week’s ruling to Strasbourg. Will the European Court of Human Rights be more sympathetic to Bunting and co’s legal arguments than the Supreme Court was? With the ECtHR’s impressive backlog of cases, it could be years before we find out the answer.

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46 Comments

A barrister

“Passion is everything at the bar” – no, it really isn’t.

“I remember being at school in Northern Ireland, where I’m from, and they brought in a pro-life campaigner to give us abortion education … I had an argument with her and the whole year was kept behind after school.” – I’m afraid I simply don’t believe this.

(16)(10)
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A Northern Irish

I do believe the second part. We had tons of similar guest speakers when I was in school. They usually started off fairly normal and then took a sharp left to crazy town. E.g. Avoiding drugs, but then “I saw Jesus while ODing and he cured me. You should follow Jesus”. Or the group that was supposed to be encouraging safe sex which ended up berating anyone who didn’t believe in abstinence and didn’t seem to be fans of contraception at all.

People regularly disagreed/argued with these people. Keeping in mind the views expressed by the DUP, is it really so unbelievable? I wasn’t even in a religious school and got this…

Northern Ireland. ‘Tis a silly place

(13)(3)
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Anonymous

As somebody who went to school in Northern Ireland, I believe it. Just because the passion has gone from your career don’t sh1t all over somebody else’s.

(14)(0)
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(Republic of) Irish barrister

In my girls’ secondary school in the Republic, we didn’t get visiting speakers. Instead we were required to watch several pro-life videos which preached abstinence and included grisly footage of a late-term abortion. I would have preferred guest speakers because at least then we could have argued with them. Instead I’ve never forgiven myself for not walking out of class in protest.

(4)(1)
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Scouser of Counsel

It always amazes me that those who are against capital punishment for the worst murderers, and against euthanasia for the terminally ill are nevertheless fine with the idea of ripping out and killing an unborn baby.

Such people use arguments like “it’s not a baby, it’s a foetus”- sorry, after 12/13 weeks it has a heartbeat, a working central nervous system and a sentient existence.

I’m normally left/liberal in my views on most things but just cannot fathom how an act designed to stop despatate women from getting killed or severely injured through backstreet abortions has apparently evolved into a “right to choose” the death of an unborn child.

The unborn are the most vulnerable in society. They deserve more protection.

Discuss.

(16)(25)
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Generally Miffed

Pro Choice. No one has the right to tell an individual in that situation what to do. What’s the point in bringing an unwanted child into the world? There are far too many children already being failed in the UK foster system. And there could be horrific circumstances behind the pregnancy such as rape or mental/physical abuse. What is a woman from NI who can’t afford a private abortion meant to do?

(8)(7)
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Scouser of Counsel

That logic could be used to justify the killing of an unwanted child that had just been born.

“Why should anyone tell the mother not to?”

Should it be extended to an elderly person with no relatives or friends living in a care home?

I wonder how many “unwanted” children born before 1967 would have chosen never to have existed?

(12)(8)
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Corbyn. Sympathiser

If abortion was illegal, what should the punishment be for women who carry one out anyway? Given you are equivocating abortion with murder, I presume a life sentence would be in order?

(2)(1)
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Corbyn. Sympathiser

Why not? You are saying that abortion is murder. Murder carries legal penalties, including life imprisonment. Unless you believe on some level that abortion isn’t murder, it follows that you must agree with punishing the women who will have abortions even if it is illegal (which will happen, cf. the real world).

So which is it? Or, if not life imprisonment, what punishment would you advocate these desperate women to suffer? Unless you’re arguing in a legal blog comment section that crimes tantamount to killing someone shouldn’t bear punishment??

(2)(2)
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Anonymous

I’m pro-life and don’t agree with imprisonment for the women who have abortions. The doctors who profit from destroying innocent lives though? That’s a different story.

(7)(0)
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Corbyn. Sympathiser

Why? It is the women who get the abortions – and many will do so without doctors. They’ll do it with homemade poisons and coathangers and other such methods, which hardly bear thinking about. Why will you exempt them from punishment if you really believe they are committing murder?

(0)(5)
Anonymous

As you know, as a matter of English law, a foetus is not legally a “person” until it is born, either before or after 24 weeks. In the CP v CICA case the CoA reaffirmed that well-established proposition. The relevant provisions of the abortion act don’t change that position, they just render legal an act which would otherwise be illegal (i.e. voluntarily destroying a foetus).

I don’t think it’s surprising that ECHR jurisprudence has consistently favoured the rights of the living mother over the putative rights of the foetus. Like most human rights law this is a balancing exercise, but one where the balance weighs heavily in favour of the mother’s Art 2, Art 3 and Art 8 rights. Leading case on rights of the foetus here is Vo v France where ECHR did not decide one way or another whether a foetus has art 2 rights.

(4)(0)
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Gez

How dare you decide who should be born and not!!! Same old same old selfish and unloving…no wonder the worlds in a state…take a look in the mirror first! We are the pro life generation…the culture of death abortion is coming to an end! Sing it loud …

(4)(6)
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Darren from Ipswich

I disagree, but then again, I’m a horrible see you next Tuesday.

It is a trade-off as to what causes more harm/hurt – forcing the woman to keep the baby, or the physical pain suffered by the unborn baby if it is aborted?

I personally don’t care about the moral rights or wrongs. Ultimately the unborn baby is not capable of properly thinking. It doesn’t know what is going on. None the wiser. For the same reason I wouldn’t be too against a newly born being terminated, but the difference there is that it is easier to find a home for that baby whereas forcing a woman to keep it in her womb for a long while against her will is not great. Especially if it makes her bitter and in turn she has a few hundred pints of bitter during the pregnancy.

(1)(7)
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Gez

Darren you need prayers my friend…you probably resent that…DO you believe in God?…Darren my friend do you believe in love. God bless you brother I do not understand what you can mean…all life is eternally sacred and precious from conception no exception. Listen to my words precious brother!

(1)(4)
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Sleepy lawyer

Sorry, It has a heart beat sure, and a central nervous system- but the brain hasn’t formed until fair later. It’s like having a working computer screen and no computer- it’s not working and the fetus is not sentient.

(0)(0)
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zan

There is no right answer but the lesser of two evils in my opinion. There many good reasons why some people choose to have an abortion e.g the health of the mother or baby would be severely affected by carrying on with a pregnancy. Your point that because there is a heartbeat abortion should not be allowed is an oversimplification of the issues involved. It’s a grey area at best and for every medical or psychological or social reason for people opting for an abortion there will always be an opposite but equally important moral argument to be made. I get the feeling that the time limit for abortion should be lower in any case. Publication of scientific evidence that this is an “appropriate ” time limit is lacking in my opinion

(2)(2)
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Scouser of Counsel

Our time limit is based on viability outside the womb. It is entirely possible for an “unwanted” 23 week gestation child to be legally aborted in the same hospital where efforts will be made to save a “wanted” child child born prematurely at 23 weeks gestation.

Most European countries have a time limit of 12 or 13 weeks, which is based on heartbeat/central nervous system being present. There are exceptions where the mother’s life is at risk.

Religion shouldn’t come into it (as it often does). This is a human rights issue.

(12)(6)
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Anonymous

I think you’re still not taking a purely human rights perspective. One has to consider the potential suffering of the mother. An unwanted pregnancy can cause immense mental and physical strain. Particularly for venerable individuals. Many women who choose to proceed with an abortion already have children. They often make the choice to terminate based on scarce resources for the children they already have. What kind of life are you sentencing that unborn child to, in a society where more and more struggling families can’t even afford food?
I have always taken the opinion that you could not possibly know how you would make the decision until an unwanted pregnancy happens to you or your sexual partner. Everyone deserves agency of their own body.

(2)(3)
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Larry

Agreed, and ultimately the aborted child is clueless itself as to what is going on, and it is a loss to nobody and possibly a secret to almost everybody.

(3)(4)
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Jacqueline

We want the right to torture, degrade and kill our fetuses and family and we wanna do it in public paid for by the public in your face!

(2)(2)
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Corbyn. Sympathiser

This is either an outrageous straw-man argument, or you are a terrible deviant. In either event, you have made A Bad Post.

(3)(1)
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Scouser of Counsel

A wanted premature child born at 23 weeks struggling for life in hospital is “a baby crying”.

An unwanted child aborted at 23 weeks being left to die in a kidney dish is “a foetus making a noise”.

If anyone wants to try and justify why this is OK, please comment below.

As for the economic arguments about scarce resources, that is an argument for killing the poor to eliminate poverty.

How many poor-born people would have been OK with the idea that they should have been terminated in the womb?

(6)(1)
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Anonymous

Having views like that is not acceptable in this day and age.

If I knew who you were I would report you to th Bar Council.

Assuming you really are a barrister, of course?

(1)(3)
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zan

Scouser of counsel, your comment that, ” A wanted premature child born at 23 weeks struggling for life in hospital is “a baby crying””
is simply not true. Many babies born at 23 weeks don’t make it and of those that do, many have long term and serious problems commonly brain damage.

(1)(0)
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Anonymous

My dad has brain damage. He’s still a loving person, and through life with him was difficult, he raised a surgeon and a soon to be lawyer.

Just because something might have brain damage doesn’t make them less of a person.

(2)(0)
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Anonymous

For a homosexual to become sexually active is one of the most dangerous things they could do, far more dangerous in terms of life expectancy than smoking a packet a day.

(1)(1)
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Scouser of Counsel

No offence taken- it’s a legitimate debate (though someone up there doesn’t seem to think so!)

My question is this: which of the children in the DM article ought to have been aborted or left to die?

(3)(0)
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Seamus (it's who I am and what I do)

I favour the Irish approach (Republic of) whereby the progressive population have voted by referendum to abolish the death penalty, legalise gay marriage and protect the unborn.

Great country ❤️🇮🇪

(1)(0)
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Anonymous

A question I often pose to people who support abortion is whether they would support removing an unborn foetus into an artificial womb, instead of termination. This would protect both women’s rights to bodily autonomy as well as protecting the foetuses’ right to life. Where the answer is in the negative it is shown that what women really want is the power to kill.

(3)(1)
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