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Abortion ruling a victory for compassion in Northern Ireland, says woman whose plight persuaded judge to ease laws

By Victoria O'Hara

Published 01/12/2015

Grainne Teggart from Amnesty International and Jane Christie, whose daughter Sarah Ewart had to travel to England for an abortion
Grainne Teggart from Amnesty International and Jane Christie, whose daughter Sarah Ewart had to travel to England for an abortion
Pro-life activist Bernie Smyth

A woman whose experience highlighted the controversy over abortion legislation in Northern Ireland has said she hopes a landmark court ruling will mean no one else will have to endure the same trauma.

The almost outright ban on abortion here breaches human rights legislation, a High Court judge ruled yesterday.

The landmark judgment delivered to Belfast High Court could see a relaxation of the strict laws prohibiting women accessing terminations in cases of rape, incest or where there is a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality.

However, Attorney General John Larkin has expressed "profound disappointment" and said he is considering grounds for appeal.

During Sarah Ewart's first pregnancy, the foetus was diagnosed at 20 weeks with anencephaly, a malformation of the brain and skull which meant there was no chance of survival outside the womb, and she risked being poisoned if the foetus died in utero. In 2013, Ms Ewart went public about having to travel to England to access termination services.

She said: "I hope that this ruling means that I, and other women like me, will no longer have to go through the pain I experienced of having to travel to England, away from the care of the doctors and midwife who knew me, to access the healthcare I needed.

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

"I am an ordinary woman who suffered a very personal family tragedy, which the law in Northern Ireland turned into a living nightmare."

Ms Ewart's mother, Jane Christie, was present at Belfast High Court to hear the landmark judgment.

Speaking outside, she said it was a "relief" for women in difficult circumstances.

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) brought the judicial review against the Department of Justice to extend abortion to cases of serious foetal malformation, rape or incest.

Mr Justice Horner said women who were the victims of sexual crime, and cases of fatal foetal abnormality, were entitled to exemptions in the law.

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.

In his ruling, which lasted almost two hours, Judge Mr Justice Mark Horner told Belfast High Court: "In the circumstances, given this issue is unlikely to be grasped by the legislature in the foreseeable future, and the entitlement of citizens of Northern Ireland to have their Convention rights protected by the courts, I conclude that the Article 8 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 impugned provisions."

He also said the current law favours wealthy women who can afford to travel to England for terminations.

"If it is morally wrong to abort a foetus in Northern Ireland, it is just as wrong morally to abort the same foetus in England.

"It does not protect morals to export the problem to another jurisdiction and then turn a blind eye.

"The unavoidable inference from the inaction of the Department of Justice (DoJ) to date and the comments of the First Minister is that the prospect of any consultative paper, never mind legislative action on pregnancies which are the consequence of sexual crime, is even more gloomy," Mr Justice Horner said.

Submissions were also admitted from Precious Life, the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child, Catholic clergy and the Alliance for Choice, along with an anonymous individual referred to as AT.

The case was taken against Northern Ireland's Department of Justice (DoJ) which, following a public consultation, had recommended a law change in circumstances of fatal foetal abnormality.

However, the NIHRC said the DoJ had not gone far enough and argued the current law was incompatible with human rights legislation regarding inhuman and degrading treatment, privacy and discrimination.

Any party seeking an appeal has six weeks to lodge papers with the court.

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