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Abortion law reform debate put aside in wake of Stormont schism

Proposals on reforming Northern Ireland's strict abortion laws will not be considered because of the collapse of power-sharing, a Stormont minister said.

Women cannot seek a termination where there is a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality. Instead some fly to Great Britain for the procedure.

The Assembly is likely to be dissolved on Monday and snap elections called so ministers will not be able to consider any change to the law.

Stormont health minister Michelle O'Neill said: "I indicated previously that I would work with the justice minister to bring forward proposals in the new year for consideration by the (ministerial) executive, taking account of the findings of the fatal foetal abnormality working group.

"The current situation is that there is no longer an executive in place to consider those proposals, as a result of the fallout over the renewable heat incentive (RHI) scandal."

The expert group was established by Stormont last year after a High Court judge ruled an almost outright ban on abortion in Northern Ireland breached human rights laws.

Amnesty International Northern Ireland director Patrick Corrigan said: "The apparent collapse of the executive means that there is now no end in sight to the trauma inflicted on women with fatal foetal diagnoses of being forced to travel to England to seek lawful abortion.

"Whoever is in ministerial office after the election must address this disgraceful situation and also that of other women left with a choice between boarding a plane or facing prosecution simply for seeking healthcare available on the NHS in every other part of the UK."

Unlike other parts of the UK, the 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland where abortions are illegal except in very limited circumstances where the life or mental health of the mother is in danger.

Anyone who performs an illegal termination could be jailed for life.

Northern Ireland has a vocal pro-life lobby and Stormont has previously rejected a bid to relax abortion laws.

Former Democratic Unionist health minister Jim Wells welcomed the hiatus.

"The minister is saying that she cannot take this issue forward because there is currently no executive to refer it to.

"If the executive returns then the issue may come back on to the table as it were.

"As a pro-life MLA I believe that there is no need whatsoever for any change in the current law on abortion in Northern Ireland."

The legal position was challenged in court last summer.

Submissions were made on behalf of Sarah Ewart, 24, who went public about travelling to England for an abortion in 2013 after being told her first child had a severe brain malformation and no chance of survival.

Alliance Party Assembly member David Ford's bill on reforming the law around fatal foetal abnormalities is also likely to be a casualty of the dissolution.

He said: "It is very disappointing for women who are continuing to suffer in Northern Ireland."

The Precious Life lobby group said: "Of course, it is very unfortunate that Stormont has been brought to a halt following the deputy first minister's resignation earlier this week, but the pro-life majority are thankful that David Ford's abortion bill is now 'dead'.

"Yes, a lot of hard work lies ahead with a general election just around the corner, but Precious Life are ready to launch a massive province-wide Vote for Life campaign to ensure that the people of Northern Ireland vote only for pro-life candidates and those who are pro-abortion will not be elected."

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