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Battle over Northern Ireland abortion law could last for three years, warns human rights chief

By Victoria O'Hara

Published 17/12/2015

Pro-life campaigner Bernadette Smyth from Precious Life
Pro-life campaigner Bernadette Smyth from Precious Life
Sarah Ewart, who had an abortion in England, outside Belfast Crown Court

A campaign to change the abortion laws in Northern Ireland could be caught up in law courts for at least three years, the Human Rights Commission has said.

It comes after a High Court judge ruled Northern Ireland's current strict abortion laws are "incompatible with human rights legislation".

The move now puts the onus on politicians at Stormont to make legislative changes - but without having an obligation to do so.

Amnesty International has now called on the Assembly to "do their job".

The landmark ruling came in a challenge mounted by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission.

It could pave the way for the relaxation of the current prohibition on women accessing terminations in cases of rape, incest or where there is a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality.

However, the judgment could be appealed.

Unlike the rest of the UK, in Northern Ireland, abortion is only permitted if a woman's life is at risk or there is a permanent or serious risk to her mental or physical health.

Speaking outside court yesterday, Les Allamby from the Human Rights Commission said the judgment was "a step forward" but added it is a possibility the matter could end up before the Supreme Court - which could take around three years.

Counsel for the commission argued that traumatised women and girls being forced to cross the Irish Sea to Great Britain for pregnancy terminations are victims of the legislation in Northern Ireland.

More than 800 were said to have made this journey during 2013 alone. Speaking after the judgment, Sarah Ewart, who went to England for an abortion after learning her unborn baby had no chance of survival, said she will be seeking meetings with the new First Minister, and Deputy First Minister, in the new year.

"I do not want to have to go through the experience I had back in 2013, nor do I want any other woman to go through what I've been through," she said.

"I just urge all politicians to help us help the women carry on having the families that they want, and give us the medical procedures that we need in our hospitals where we live."

Patrick Corrigan from Amnesty said: "The politicians who have to date wished to turn their back on this issue and turn their back on women like Sarah Ewart must now think again.

"They carry a very serious responsibility to bring our laws into line with those laws set down by the European Court of Human Rights."

David Smyth, public policy adviser at the Evangelical Alliance NI, said it hoped the judgment is appealed.

"We hope the Northern Ireland Assembly will actively pursue policies to provide women with world-leading personal pathways of pregnancy crisis care, including perinatal hospice care."

Mr Allamby said: "It now falls to the department and the Northern Ireland Executive to bring forward legislation to reflect the judgment of the court."

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