Mother's tragic abortion story could spark reappraisal of rules for Northern Ireland medics
The need to allow abortions on the grounds of severe foetal abnormalities could soon be reconsidered by the Northern Ireland Executive.
Justice Minister David Ford has suggested a joint approach with Health Minister Edwin Poots following the heartbreaking story of a young woman who was refused a termination here – even though her unborn child had a fatal abnormality.
Sarah Ewart had an abortion in London last week, which she paid for herself, after finding out that her baby could not survive once born.
Although her 20-week foetus had anencephaly – a condition where the skull and brain does not develop properly – it did not pose a direct threat to her life.
Mrs Ewart and her husband were told that the terminat
ion could not be performed here and that she would have to continue with the pregnancy until the foetus either died in the womb or at birth.
Yesterday, she made a direct appeal to the health minister to allow for terminations to be legally carried out here in the case of severe abnormalities.
Her story, which she told on BBC Radio Ulster's Nolan Show, sparked off a mixed response from politicians and pro-life and pro-choice campaigners as the old argument of whether the Abortion Act 1967 should be extended to Northern Ireland flared up again.
Two different pieces of legalisation permit legal terminations in Northern Ireland and any changes to what is criminal law is a combined matter for the Department of Justice, the Executive and the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Mr Ford said that it was questionable whether the NI law was adequate to cover situations such as Mrs Ewart faced and that he would be prepared to discuss this with the health minister.
He said: "I think there would be value in having a genuine, sincere and honest debate about a small number of difficult cases which may not always be covered by the current law."
But he stressed: "It's been clear from recent debates that there is no overall appetite in the Assembly for a substantial change in the law – nor am I advocating it."
However, Audrey Simpson, Acting chief executive of the Family Planning Association, claimed that the Assembly was out of touch with Northern Ireland public opinion on the matter.
Market research commissioned in a Northern Ireland Omnibus survey last year suggested a majority of people here were in favour of making abortion legal if the foetus showed a risk of serious or permanent defect.
"Forty-two per cent of people here agreed that a termination in this case should be legal with 32% saying no, but with the remaining 22% of people saying they 'don't know' leads me to conclude this is something people would agree to in exceptional circumstances."
Last night, Mr Poots said that he would be prepared to meet and listen to Mrs Ewart and give a "considered response" later on what the Northern Ireland Executive could possibly offer in such cases.
He said: "This is a very touching story but it's said that hard cases don't mean good law and each and every case has to be carefully considered." However, Alliance MLA Anna Lo blasted the minister's recent draft abortion guidelines as "going back to the dark ages" because of their "threatening nature".
Ulster Unionist Health spokesman Roy Beggs called for the minister's guidelines to be brought forward as soon as possible while the SDLP's health spokesman Fearghal McKinney reaffirmed his party is strongly opposed to any extension of the Abortion Act to Northern Ireland.
Bernie Smyth of pro-life group Precious Life said: "If a baby is diagnosed with fatal disabilities, the baby should not be deliberately killed by abortion."
Abortion debate: Why Sarah could not have a termination here
Northern Ireland is the only region of the UK that does not allow for legal terminations on the grounds of fetal abnormalities.
We are not covered by the Abortion Act 1967 like England, Scotland and Wales but by two separate pieces of legalisation.
The Abortion Act allows for terminations, approved by two registered medical practitioners, on the grounds, amongst others, that "there is a substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped".
However, in Northern Ireland, terminations can only be performed when the woman's life is in "imminent risk or if there is a long-term or permanent risk to her physical or mental health".
These criteria are covered in sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, and in section 25 of the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1945 as interpreted by the courts.
This has led to a complex and confused situation here that recently has become even more unclear following recent guidelines from Health Minister Edwin Poots.
Along with the current debate on dealing with the past and with victims, the abortion issue has been one of the most divisive issues in the province.
In 2000, unionists and SDLP politicians joined together to block a move to extend the Abortion Act to Northern Ireland.
The need to further clarify the position here has been raised periodically since 2003.
It led to the Poots guidelines being prepared earlier this year, which was closed for public consultation on July 31.
However, a Department of Health spokeswoman stressed that until the final guidance document is considered by the minister and executive, "it has no status".
"Any guidance document produced aims to ensure a consistency of approach in provision of services to which women are legally entitled," said the spokeswoman. "The guidance does not change the law. It merely clarifies the legal position in relation to termination of pregnancy in Northern Ireland.
"Any change to the law in Northern Ireland would be a matter for the Department of Justice, Executive and Northern Ireland Assembly."