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Larkin's fear law change may be against human rights

By Rebecca Black

Published 11/02/2016

John Larkin
John Larkin

Northern Ireland Attorney General John Larkin has expressed concerns that any move to allow for abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities may not be compatible with international human rights law.

The law chief's intervention emerged yesterday afternoon as MLAs took part in a marathon debate on the new Justice Bill, which covers our legislation on terminations.

One of the amendments to the Bill proposed allowing abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, where the baby was not expected to survive to delivery or for long after birth.

Yesterday it was learned that Mr Larkin had expressed concerns about this proposal in a letter to TUV MLA Jim Allister.

Mr Larkin wrote that "providing for a criminal law exception for 'fatal foetal abnormality', as proposed by this amendment, provides unborn children diagnosed with such a disability with much less protection under the law of Northern Ireland than those without such a disability".

He pointed to cases in Spain and Austria, in which the UN committee that oversees the convention has recommended that states should abolish any distinctions related to abortion in foetuses with disabilities.

Mr Larkin said: "Those unborn children who are 'doomed to die' or are otherwise regarded by the proposers of this amendment as unworthy of life because of the nature of their disability are as protected by the UN convention as any others."

He also said he thought the conscience provisions in yesterday's amendments - proposed for NHS employees who have a religious or ethical objection to participating in abortions - are inadequate.

Amnesty International expressed concern at the development.

"It is disconcerting to learn that the Attorney General questions whether or not providing for access to abortion in cases of fatal foetal impairment is compatible with international human rights law, when it is very clear that it is exactly what is required by international human rights law," Amnesty spokesman Patrick Corrigan said.

"The Attorney General's comments, apparently conflating disability with fatal foetal impairment, are misleading and do a great disservice to those in Northern Ireland who want an informed discussion on this important human rights issue. Moreover, it is most unfair on women and families who have been through or are currently facing these experiences.

"To be clear, fatal and severe foetal impairment means the foetus will not survive birth or for very long after birth.

"Neither the World Health Organisation nor any human rights body has characterised severe foetal impairment as a disability of the foetus.

"Legislating for access to abortion in cases of fatal and severe foetal impairments is in no way incompatible with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. To suggest otherwise simply serves to confuse public understanding of the issue and provides cover for those politicians who do not wish to bring Northern Ireland's law into compliance with international human rights standards."

Mr Corrigan claimed there was "huge public support in Northern Ireland for access to abortion on these grounds".

"This is substantially due to the harrowing testimonies of the women and their families who have bravely spoken out about the trauma of having to travel and being treated as criminals," he added.

Around 1,000 women and girls from Northern Ireland are known to travel to England or elsewhere every year to access abortions.

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