Consultation on abortion law reform
Northern Ireland's strict abortion laws could be changed to make it easier for women carrying babies with fatal foetal abnormalities to access a termination.
Justice Minister David Ford is to consult on proposals to adjust the legislation which currently outlaws abortion except when the life of the mother is at risk.
The move, which has sparked outrage among pro-life campaigners, comes after two high profile cases where pregnant women whose babies had no chance of survival were forced to travel to England for an abortion.
In a statement issued through the Department of Justice, it was claimed the minister recognised the difficult situations facing some women.
The statement said: "David Ford believes there is a question whether, in certain difficult but closely-defined cases, the law's line has been drawn in the right place. The consultation will therefore focus on cases of terminal foetal abnormality."
Mr Ford said he was not seeking a fundamental change in the law or an extension of the 1967 Abortion Act which does not apply in Northern Ireland. He said he anticipated it would only apply to a narrow range of cases.
"The Department is keen to be as specific as possible about the changes it will propose, but defining them in terms the law can apply throws up complex issues that will require time to address," the statement added.
Mr Ford aims to bring a draft consultation document to the Stormont justice committee no later than March next year.
But, any change in the law will have to receive cross-party support at the Executive and the approval of the Assembly.
Fatal foetal abnormality is not grounds for a legal abortion in Northern Ireland.
The issue gained prominence in October after Sarah Ewart went public about how she was forced to travel to London for a termination after her baby was diagnosed with anencephaly, a severe brain anomaly which meant the skull had not developed properly.
Another woman, known only as Laura, who was 22 weeks pregnant with twins suffering from the same fatal condition, also spoke out about being told she would have to fly to England for an abortion.
Northern Ireland is not covered by the 1967 Abortion Act and every year more than 1,000 women travel from the region to clinics in England, Scotland and Wales where access to an abortion is allowed up to 24 weeks into pregnancy on grounds that include abnormalities which could lead to a child being seriously disabled.
Anti-abortionists have vowed to challenge changes to the law which they claimed could lead to an increasing number of children being aborted.
Bernadette Smyth from the Precious Life Group said: " I am outraged that there is going to be a consultation in Northern Ireland on whether some children will live and whether some will die.
"I do believe this will open the floodgates. This is not care, this is killing."
Pro-choice groups have welcomed the minister's statement.
Audrey Simpson, director of the Family Planning Association said: "We hear from women on an almost weekly basis who find themselves in a similar situation, as well as those who have become pregnant as a result of rape and incest.
"It is time that the Northern Ireland Assembly looked at these cases and introduced appropriate legislation."
The Health Minister has also said he would issue revised guidance after doctors and midwives faced with the prospect of prosecution raised concerns about a culture of fear on maternity wards.
The Democratic Unionist Party is the largest in Northern Ireland. A spokesman said: "This is a most serious and sensitive matter. The issue of abortion generates high emotions on both sides of the argument whether that be pro-life or pro-choice."
He added: " The DUP is a pro-life party and fundamentally opposes the 1967 Act and the delivery of abortion on demand which it affords. It is estimated that 90,000 lives have been saved in Northern Ireland due to the more balanced approach we take to abortion compared to Great Britain.
"We want to see as few abortions as possible take place in Northern Ireland."
He noted criminal justice laws' provisions on abortion.
"We should always remember that behind the statistics and arguments lies the lives of fathers, mothers and unborn children. Everyone should approach this issue with sensitivity and compassion."