Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland's abortion law may change for rape and incest pregnancies

BY LIAM CLARKE

Northern Ireland's strict abortion laws could be changed to make it easier for women carrying babies with fatal foetal abnormalities to access a termination.

Justice Minister David Ford is to launch a consultation aimed at extending the grounds on which abortion can be carried out.

The minister said that the document, which isn't expected to be produced until March, will also test opinion on allowing abortion in cases where pregnancy is caused by rape or incest.

Mr Ford announced the move yesterday on BBC Radio Ulster's Nolan Show. He said that he intended focusing on the possibility of allowing a termination in cases where a foetus was unlikely to survive birth.

A Department of Justice spokesman stressed that the minister would not be proposing "a fundamental change, nor the introduction of the 1967 Abortion Act" which applies elsewhere in the UK.

He added: "David Ford believes there is a question whether, in certain difficult but closely defined cases, the law's line has been drawn in the right place. The consultation will therefore focus on cases of terminal foetal abnormality."

Abortion here is governed by the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. It specifies life imprisonment for "procuring a miscarriage", but the courts have never convicted a doctor of this offence. When charged, doctors have normally been acquitted if they believed that a woman was likely to suffer severe and long-term damage if the pregnancy continued. The courts have allowed abortions in the case of suicide risk.

Attempts to codify the circumstances in which abortions can be carried out have, up to now, been struck out as a result of legal challenges.

Earlier this year, Health Minister Edwin Poots issued new draft guidelines which were more restrictive than previous versions and put stress on the possibility of prosecution.

They also said that referring women to England for abortions under its more liberal legislation was a "grey area" which could result in prosecution.

After these guidelines were issued, a number of women who might previously have been granted abortions in Northern Ireland were refused them.

QUOTES

Mr Ford's consultation is being launched with the agreement of Health Minister Edwin Poots. He has also consulted the four Church leaders. "There are clearly some very difficult cases in Northern Ireland which are not covered by the law," Mr Ford said. He added that many female victims of rape were currently offered the "morning after pill" to prevent pregnancy. When this happened, he said, it "means we don't then tend to have to look to the issue of abortion".

Belfast Telegraph

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