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Abortion law reform bid attacked

Published 16/06/2015

The landmark legal challenge is being heard at Belfast High Court
The landmark legal challenge is being heard at Belfast High Court

A legal bid to alter Northern Ireland's abortion laws is going nowhere, a High Court judge has heard.

Attorney General John Larkin QC, chief legal adviser to the Stormont Executive, slated the Human Rights Commission for bringing forward the challenge without a victim or adequate authority.

Addressing judge Mr Justice Mark Horner, the senior lawyer said: "The Commission simply does not get off the ground as far as this application is concerned."

Mr Larkin was speaking during the second day of the judicial review at Belfast High Court.

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) is seeking to legalise abortion in cases of serious foetal malformation, rape and incest.

Unlike other parts of the UK, the 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland where terminations are only permitted if a woman's life is at risk or if there is a permanent or serious risk to her mental or physical health.

Anyone who unlawfully carries out an abortion could be jailed for life.

After a public consultation the Department of Justice (DoJ) has recommended amending the law to allow terminations in cases of fatal foetal abnormality however, there was no such recommendation for cases of sexual crime.

The Commission claims the consultation did not go far enough and that the situation is incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. It said legal proceedings had been launched as a last resort.

Yesterday, the court heard that 802 women had travelled from Northern Ireland to England and Wales for terminations during 2013 - five of them were aged under 16.

Natalie Lievan QC, representing NIHRC, said forcing women and girls to travel for abortion services was cruel, inhuman and a breach of their human rights.

It was also claimed that the Stormont lawmakers had failed to deal with the issue because it was too controversial.

However, counsel for the DoJ, Tony McGleenan QC said the constitutional process was being undermined because the NIHRC "rushing" to the courts.

By launching a public consultation and submitting the paper to the Executive for consideration earlier this month, the Minister for Justice David Ford had done all he could, the barrister said.

It was also argued that because abortion was such a contentious issue which cut across two different government departments - health and justice - Mr Ford could not change the law on his own.

Mr McGleenan said: "The constitutional process, made clear by the Northern Ireland Act, requires the justice minister's paper goes to the Executive for consideration.

"We have a constitutional process to deal with this. What the applicant is saying is, tear all that up; bypass all the constitutional legislation and go directly to the court."

Although cases of serious foetal malfunction and sexual crime were not included in the Departmental consultation, Mr McGleenan said they be dealt with at a later date.

Among those in the courtroom for the judicial review hearing was Sarah Ewart, whose experience in 2013 shone a spotlight on the emotive issue of abortion.

The 24-year-old from Belfast went public about having to travel to London for an abortion after being told her first baby had a lethal abnormality and had no chance of survival.

Speaking ahead of the case, Ms Ewart said she felt compelled to join the landmark legal action.

She said: "I and many women like me have been failed by our politicians. After they left me with no option but to go to England for medical care, now by their refusal to change the law, they leave me with no option but to go to the courts on my and other women's behalf."

A range of organisations from both sides of the abortion argument including Amnesty International and the Catholic church have also supplied written submissions to the judge.

The case has been scheduled to last for three days. A verdict is not expected until after the court's summer recess.

The case continues.

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