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Northern Ireland abortion law ruling due

By Linda Stewart

Published 30/11/2015

Sarah Ewart
Sarah Ewart

Judgment is due today on a legal bid to relax Northern Ireland's abortion laws.

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

Among those who made submissions to the hearing at Belfast High Court in June were Sarah Ewart, who went public about having to travel to London to access termination services in 2013 after her first baby was diagnosed with anencephaly, a severe brain malformation.

The three-day judicial review hearing also received submissions from the Northern Bishops and Attorney General John Larkin QC, who accused the NICHR of wanting to take away the rights of disabled unborn children. Unlike other parts of the UK, the 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland and termination of pregnancy is only allowed if a woman's life is at risk or 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.

At the end of the three-day hearing, Mr Justice Mark Horner reserved judgment on the case, saying it required mature reflection.

"It will come as no surprise that I will not be making an immediate judgment on this case," he said.

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

"I have not made up my mind."

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.

NIHRC has argued that forcing women to leave the jurisdiction away from support networks amounts to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and that the current law is incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, violating the human rights of women and girls.

It says a consultation paper submitted to the Stormont Executive by the Department of Justice earlier this year on changing the law to allow abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality does not go far enough and legal proceedings were launched as a last resort.

NIHRC says that if the High Court finds in its favour this morning, it will then fall to the NI Assembly to amend the law.

Any party in the case, including NIHRC, the Department of Justice and the Attorney General, can lodge an appeal after the judgment - the time limit for this is six weeks after the judgment is delivered.

Anti-abortion campaigner Bernadette Smyth has described the legal action as an "undemocratic" move that ignored the views of people and politicians in Northern Ireland. She said unborn children have a fundamental right to be born.

Last week Health Minister Simon Hamilton said abortion guidance would be brought before the Executive shortly.

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