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Grief of pregnant Northern Ireland woman travelling to England for abortion 'shows precious human life was present' - John Larkin tells court

The Attorney General made the courtroom claim as appeal against a High Court ruling begins in Belfast.

By Alan Erwin

Published 20/06/2016

Attorney General John Larkin and the Department of Justice are both appealing a landmark verdict that abortion law in Northern Ireland is incompatible with human rights legislation.
Attorney General John Larkin and the Department of Justice are both appealing a landmark verdict that abortion law in Northern Ireland is incompatible with human rights legislation.

The grief of a woman who travelled to England for the abortion of a baby with a fatal defect shows precious human life was present, Northern Ireland's top law officer has argued.

Attorney General John Larkin QC made the courtroom claim as he challenged a judge's finding that it is wrong to prohibit the termination of a foetus "doomed to die" because it cannot exist outside the womb.

Mr Larkin and the Department of Justice are both appealing a landmark verdict that abortion law in Northern Ireland is incompatible with human rights legislation.

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, who issued the original proceedings, is also mounting a cross-appeal in a bid to have the regime declared inhuman, degrading and discriminatory.

Unlike other parts of the UK, abortions are currently only legal in Northern Ireland within the region to protect the woman's life or if there is a risk of serious damage to her well-being.

Last year the High Court ruled that the failure to provide exceptions to the near-blanket ban for cases of fatal foetal abnormalities (FFAs) and victims of  rape or incest breaches entitlements to respect for private and family life.

Mr Justice Horner also made a formal declaration that the legislation is incompatible with the UK's obligations under the Human Rights Act.

The Commission took legal action after the Department of Justice launched a public consultation on amending the criminal law.

That process concluded with a recommendation for new legislation dealing with cases of FFA.

But with no proposed changes covering pregnancies resulting from sexual crime, the Commission insisted the consultation does not go far enough.

It was also seeking to have terminations legalised in cases of rape or serious foetal malformation.

During the original legal battle arguments were also made on behalf of the Catholic Bishops in Northern Ireland, and Sarah Ewart - a woman from Northern Ireland who went to England for an abortion after learning her unborn baby had no chance of survival.

In his ruling Mr Justice Horner held that it was "illegitimate and disproportionate to place a prohibition on the abortion of both a foetus doomed to die because it is incapable of an existence independent of the mother's womb and the viable foetus conceived as a result of sexual crime".

But challenging the verdict at the Court of Appeal on Monday, Mr Larkin referred to written submissions from both Ms Ewart and another unidentified woman who gave a name to the baby she was carrying with an FFA.

"Each were expressing grief for the loss of a baby," he told a panel of three senior judges chaired by Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan.

The Attorney General contended that, paradoxically, the High Court ruling had erroneously failed to weigh the two women's experiences in the balance.

"One is dealing with human life that may be of short duration but is nonetheless precious," he insisted.

"When the trial judge says there's no human life to protect that's plainly wrong."

Mr Larkin went on to claim the Commission lacked the necessary victim status to bring judicial review proceedings.

Further arguing that no unlawful act had been identified in the case, he said: "This is an issue that goes right to the core of the Commission's jurisdiction to bring these proceedings."

The appeal continues.

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