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Judgment reserved in abortion case

Published 17/06/2015

John Larkin said the proposals would violate international law
John Larkin said the proposals would violate international law

Judgment has been reserved in a landmark legal bid to relax Northern Ireland's abortion laws.

Mr Justice Mark Horner said he realised a verdict would be eagerly anticipated but the complex and emotive case required "mature reflection".

The judge told Belfast High Court: "It will come as no surprise that I will not be making an immediate judgment on this case.

"The quality and quantity of the arguments both written and oral has given me food for thought.

"I have not made up my mind."

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) is seeking to legalise abortion in cases of serious foetal malformation, rape and incest.

Unlike other parts of the UK, the 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland and termination of pregnancy is only permitted if a woman's life is at risk or if there is a permanent or serious risk to her mental or physical health.

Anyone who unlawfully carries out an abortion could be jailed for life.

The region's Department of Justice (DOJ) has carried out a public consultation on changing the law to allow abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality but, the NIHRC has claimed the consultation paper, submitted to the Stormont Executive earlier this month, does not go far enough.

It said legal proceedings had been launched as a last resort.

The three day judicial review hearing has included representations from the DoJ, the Catholic clergy and Sarah Ewart, the 24-year-old woman whose experience of having to travel to England for an abortion in 2013 shot a public spotlight on the issue of fatal foetal abnormality.

Ms Ewart, from Belfast, whose first baby was diagnosed with anencephaly -- a severe brain malformation -- and given no chance of survival went public about having to travel to London to access termination services in 2013.

She sat in the public gallery supported by her mother Jane Christie as the court heard how three ultrasound scans revealed the baby had no brain and the skull had not formed above the eye socket.

Her barrister told the judge she was not just a case study.

Monye Anyadike-Danes said: "Sarah Ewart is not a case study. Her experience is not historic. The reason she's not historic is that she's at high risk of having another pregnancy with a fatal foetal abnormality."

Yesterday a lawyer for the DoJ claimed the Justice Minister David Ford could not unilaterally change the law and that the Executive should be given time to deal with the emotive issue.

But, Ms Anyadike-Danes claimed legislative process had hit an "insurmountable hurdle".

She highlighted comments from First Minister Peter Robinson that abortion could be dealt with by a series of guidelines as further indication that the Assembly was not going to act.

Ms Anyadike-Danes added: "There is no point in waiting. It is not going to happen."

Abortion remains a hugely divisive issue in Northern Ireland.

The region's Attorney General John Larkin QC was given special permission to address the court.

During almost four hours of submissions Stormont's chief legal advisEr accused the NICHR of wanting to take away the rights of disabled unborn children.

He said: "The Human Rights Commission want to take away the right to life of disabled unborn children. Not only is this wrong it is also inconsistent with UNCRPD (UN Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities)."

Mr Larkin also claimed the contentious issue had been "extensively canvassed" but there was no public appetite to change the law.

He said: "This is not a matter on which the democratically accountable authority are silent or inactive."

The Catholic Church also voiced opposition to any relaxation of the current law.

Brett Lockhart QC, counsel for the Northern Bishops, acknowledged that it "raised the hardest of hard cases" and experiences like that of Sarah Ewart were deeply moving.

However, the barrister said there should be no distinction between a foetus with a life limiting condition and a baby diagnosed with Down's Syndrome of Cystic Fibrosis.

He warned that a law change could "open the floodgates for every type of disability".

Mr Lockhart said: "We submit that abortion is not the answer."

Official figures show that in 2013, more than 800 women travelled from Northern Ireland to England and Wales to access abortion services.

They included Ms Ewart and a 13-year-old girl who became pregnant as a result of incest.

The NIHRC has consistently argued that forcing women to leave the jurisdiction away from support networks amounts to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

The Commission also claims the current law which relies on legislation from 1861 is incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

Natalie Lievan QC, representing the NIHRC, said the criminalisation of abortion was denying women help.

She said: "The treatment here is the criminalisation of abortion, a consequence of that is women and girls cannot get the treatment they need."

Mr Justice Horner is not expected to deliver his verdict until after the court's summer recess.

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