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Fatal foetal abnormality woman in legal bid over abortion advice

By Alan Erwin

Published 04/12/2015

Simon Hamilton
Simon Hamilton

A Co Antrim woman twice forced to terminate pregnancies is to seek access to new draft guidelines on abortion in Northern Ireland, the High Court has heard.

Her lawyer said that she wanted the document Health Minister Simon Hamilton has just circulated among his Executive colleagues disclosed to her.

The woman is taking legal action over an alleged continued failure to issue the revised guidance to medical professionals, which she said had compounded the trauma of losing her babies.

Earlier this week a High Court judge ruled that abortion legislation in Northern Ireland was in breach of human rights law.

Terminations are currently only allowed here if the mother's life or her mental wellbeing are considered to be at risk.

But a landmark judicial review found the failure to provide exceptions to the ban for pregnant women in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, or ones resulting from a sex crime, breached their rights to private and family life.

Separate litigation has been brought by a woman who has had to undergo two abortions.

In a challenge to the department, she claimed there was a legitimate expectation that the guidelines would be published in their final form.

With the draft document now before the Executive, her lawyer Peter Bowles told the court: "To date we haven't seen it. There will be a request to see it."

Responding to the challenge, Paul McLaughlin, for the department, said: "I can't give any assurance or commitment as to how the department or Executive would respond to the request for disclosure of guidelines which are currently before them for consideration. There have also been recent events in the area. One doesn't know how the Executive will react to that." In 2013 the woman, granted anonymity in the case, had to travel to a clinic in England to terminate twins with fatal foetal abnormalities.

Staff at a Belfast hospital believed they were unable to carry out the abortion because of uncertainty surrounding the law, according to papers in the case.

Earlier this year, after proceedings were commenced, she again discovered that a second pregnancy was also non-viable.

On that occasion, however, she was able to have an abortion at another hospital in Belfast after consultants decided that continuing with the pregnancy could have serious consequences for her mental health.

The woman's legal action represents the latest stage in litigation surrounding the issue, stretching back more than a decade.

A previous case brought by the Family Planning Association resulted in the department publishing the first guidance for health professionals in 2009.

But a judge later ruled it did not properly cover areas of counselling and conscientious objection.

The guidelines were held to be misleading and had to be withdrawn for reconsideration.

In 2013, it was announced that a new draft was to go before the Stormont Executive and then to public consultation.

The case was adjourned to later in the month.

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