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Abortion: Questions and answers on Northern Ireland's strict laws

Published 30/11/2015

Sarah Ewart, from Belfast, had to travel to England to have an abortion in 2013 after being told her unborn baby had no chance of survival
Sarah Ewart, from Belfast, had to travel to England to have an abortion in 2013 after being told her unborn baby had no chance of survival

A landmark legal challenge to relax Northern Ireland's strict abortion laws has been successful.

What is the law on abortion in Northern Ireland?

Abortion is currently covered by the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act and 1945 Criminal Justice Act. It is unlawful to perform a termination except to preserve the life or mental health of the mother. Punishment for anyone who unlawfully performs a termination is life imprisonment.

The 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland.

What is the case about?

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) is seeking a change in the law to offer women and girls a choice of accessing a termination in circumstances of fatal foetal abnormality, rape or incest.

Who is involved in the case?

The NIHRC has taken the case against the Department of Justice. The Attorney General for Northern Ireland, John Larkin is also a notice party in the case.

A number of third party interveners have been given permission to make written submissions. They are Sarah Ewart, who was forced to travel to England for an abortion after being told her baby had no chance of survival; the Northern Bishops; The Society for the Protection of Unborn Chidren; the Family Planning Association; Alliance for Choice and an anonymous individual; Precious Life and Amnesty International.

What is public opinion on the issue of abortion?

Abortion is one of the most emotive and divisive issues in Northern Ireland. When Marie Stopes set up a clinic in Belfast in 2012 there were large-scale demonstrations and pro life campaigners continue to picket the facility on a daily basis. Anti abortionists argue any change to the law is undemocratic while pro choice campaigners believe women in Northern Ireland should have the same choices as others in the rest of the UK.

Following a public consultation the region's Justice Minister David Ford recommended changing the law in circumstances of fatal foetal abnormality. At present there is still no guidance on the issue of abortion for health professionals working in the region.

What are the grounds for legal action?

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission has asked the court to declare that the current law, relating to access to termination of pregnancy services for women in cases of serious malformation of the foetus or pregnancy as a result of rape or incest, is incompatible with human rights law and results in a breach of the rights of women and girls seeking a termination of pregnancy in these circumstances.

What Human Rights are engaged in this case?

This case directly engages the right to freedom from torture, inhuman and degrading treatment (Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights); the right to privacy (Article 8); and discrimination (Article 14).

Could there be an appeal?

Any party in the case, (The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, the Department of Justice and the Attorney General) has six weeks to appeal after the judgment is delivered.

What happens next?

The judge has invited parties to make submissions about whether it is possible to read the legislation in such a way to ensure that no offence is committed in respect of terminations of fatal foetal abnormalities and pregnancies due to sexual crime before the foetus is able to exist independently of the mother. He will then consider whether it is necessary to exercise his discretion and make a declaration that the legislation is incompatible with the UK's obligations under the 1998 Human Rights Act.

The court is expected to re-convene in December.

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