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Northern Ireland's abortion law is inhumane, court told

By Deborah McAleese

Published 16/06/2015

Sarah Ewart outside court with Grainne Teggart of Amnesty International, and Jane Christie and Laura Cunningham of Johnson’s law
Sarah Ewart outside court with Grainne Teggart of Amnesty International, and Jane Christie and Laura Cunningham of Johnson’s law

Northern Ireland's abortion laws are "cruel, inhumane and degrading" it has been claimed.

Yesterday was the first day of a landmark legal challenge to the almost total ban on terminations.

Belfast High Court was told Northern Irish law discriminates against women seeking an abortion in rape, incest and "serious malformation" of a foetus.

It heard that to force someone to give birth to a child due to rape or incest was the "grossest intrusion into a woman's private life".

The court challenge was launched by Sarah Ewart who, at 20 weeks pregnant, had to travel to England for an abortion after her baby had been diagnosed with anencephaly, a condition where the brain has not developed.

Sarah, whose legal bid is being backed by Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC), said she suffered a very personal family tragedy "which the law in Northern Ireland turned into a living nightmare".

The commission wants abortion to be legalised in Northern Ireland in cases of rape, incest or serious malformation of a foetus.

It is legal here if a woman's life is at risk or if there is a risk of permanent or serious damage to her mental or physical health. The 1967 Abortion Act was never extended to Northern Ireland. All main political parties oppose it.

"There's cruel and inhumane treatment of denying a woman an abortion in cases of serious foetal abnormality, rape and incest," barrister for NIHRC, Natalie Lievan QC, told the court.

She said that in Northern Ireland, in cases of serious foetal abnormality, a woman either has to carry the baby to term "knowing it will die", or like Sarah Ewart, "be forced to travel in the most tragic circumstances. That cannot be categorised as anything other than cruel and inhumane treatment," the QC said.

She added that this was a breach of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights which prohibits torture, and "inhuman or degrading treatment".

The court was told that in 2013, 802 terminations were carried out in England on women who resided in Northern Ireland. Five of those females were under 16.

It was claimed that in the same year 515 sexual assaults were recorded on girls aged 13 and over. More than 250 were girls aged under 13. There were four recorded cases of incest.

The court was also told of the case of a 13-year-old girl who became pregnant after being raped by her father and was left "frightened and distressed when told she had to travel to England for an abortion," Ms Lievan said.

The QC added that to force women or girls into having babies that were the result of rape or incest was "the grossest intrusion into a woman's private life".

The QC added that the rights of the unborn child cannot outweigh the rights of the mother, subject to gestational limits.

A Department of Justice lawyer described the legal challenge to the 1861 abortion legislation as "misconceived and wrong in law".

Other groups expected to make submissions during the legal battle, expected to last until tomorrow, are Alliance for Change, Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child, Catholic Bishops NI, the Family Planning Association, Marie Stopes and the Northern Ireland attorney general.

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