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New court showdown on abortion law in Northern Ireland as Attorney General lodges appeal

Law chief in challenge to ruling our legislation is contrary to human rights

By David Young, PA

Published 26/01/2016

Northern Ireland Attorney General John Larkin is leading the challenge to the judge's ruling
Northern Ireland Attorney General John Larkin is leading the challenge to the judge's ruling

The Attorney General has lodged an appeal against a High Court ruling that declared Northern Ireland's strict abortion laws incompatible with human rights legislation.

John Larkin is to challenge Mr Justice Horner's judgment in the Court of Appeal.

The judge's landmark ruling last year had potentially paved the way for the relaxation of the current prohibition on women accessing terminations in cases of rape, incest or where there is a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality.

The judge's declaration of incompatibility did not immediately lift the current ban, but had placed an onus on the Stormont Assembly to legislate on the contentious issue.

Judge Horner had ruled that the failure to provide exceptions to the law in certain limited circumstances breached a woman's right to privacy.

In cases of fatal foetal abnormality (FFA), the judge concluded that the mother's inability to access an abortion was a "gross interference with her personal autonomy" and, where a sexual crime has occurred, the judge said a disproportionate burden was placed on victims. Unlike other parts of the UK, the 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland where abortions are illegal except where the life or mental health of the mother is in danger.

Anyone who performs an illegal termination could be jailed for life.

Judge Horner made the ruling in a case taken by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission against Stormont's Department of Justice.

The Attorney General's office confirmed an appeal had been lodged.

Amnesty International pledged to resist any attempt to overturn the judge's ruling. Amnesty's programme director in Northern Ireland Patrick Corrigan said: "The High Court made a very clear ruling that laws governing abortion in Northern Ireland breach the human rights of women and girls.

"That important ruling stands and we stand ready to resist any attempt to overturn it."

He added: "The Assembly must bring Northern Ireland's abortion laws into the 21st century and into line with international law as a matter of urgency."

Amnesty International had intervened in the original High Court case, which was taken by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, and supported local woman Sarah Ewart in giving evidence to the court about her experience.

Mrs Ewart's first pregnancy was given a fatal foetal diagnosis, and she had to travel to England to terminate her pregnancy as it was illegal to do so in a hospital in Northern Ireland.

The High Court decision had been hailed by Amnesty as a "hugely significant step" towards ensuring the right to access abortion for women and girls in Northern Ireland who have been raped, are victims of incest or whose pregnancies have been given a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality. More than 800 women were said to have made the journey across the Irish Sea to Britain for a pregnancy termination during 2013 alone.

Speaking after the judgment, Ms Ewart had said: "I do not want to have to go through the experience I had back in 2013, nor do I want any other woman to go through what I've been through.

"I just urge all politicians to help us help the women carry on having the families that they want, and give us the medical procedures that we need, in our hospitals where we live."

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