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Pathologist who quit over abortion laws cites couple who aborted baby in England

Published 14/09/2016

Attorney General John Larkin appealed against a ruling that the ban on terminations in cases of sexual crime or fatal foetal abnormalities were incompatible with international human rights laws
Attorney General John Larkin appealed against a ruling that the ban on terminations in cases of sexual crime or fatal foetal abnormalities were incompatible with international human rights laws

A paediatric pathologist in Northern Ireland has quit after claiming the region's strict abortion laws forced a couple to abort their baby in England and bring home the remains in a picnic cooler bag.

Outlining her reasons for resigning, Dr Caroline Gannon was particularly critical of the stance of Northern Ireland's attorney general in regard to abortion in the cases of fatal foetal abnormalities.

Abortion is outlawed in Northern Ireland except in cases where the mother's health is at risk.

Reacting to the resignation, Stormont First Minister Arlene Foster denied politicians were letting health professionals down.

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said the circumstances of Dr Gannon's resignation had created a "very serious situation".

Last year a High Court judge in Belfast ruled that the ban on terminations in instances of sexual crime or fatal foetal abnormalities were incompatible with international human rights laws.

Attorney General John Larkin and Stormont's Department of Justice appealed against that ruling.

Judges are currently considering arguments made during the appeal hearing. A Stormont-established working group is also examining the issue of abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities.

Dr Gannon said her position had been made untenable and that the intervention by Mr Larkin was the tipping point.

She cited the case of a couple who wanted a post-mortem examination to be carried out to discover the cause of their baby's fatal foetal abnormality.

As abortion was banned in Northern Ireland, the couple travelled to England for the termination. The pathologist said they then transported the remains home for post-mortem in a cooler bag with ice packs.

"They're on their own in a strange town, a strange country in a private clinic with no support," Dr Gannon told the BBC.

"If this had happened in a hospital in Northern Ireland midwives would be there, hospital processes would be in place they could sit with their baby and then somebody else would be responsible for bringing their baby down to the mortuary to ensure the post-mortem is carried out.

"But they were on their own and they had to organise that themselves and transport their own baby's body back in a picnic cooler in the boot of the car on the overnight ferry."

She added: "I just cannot work in this particular system. I find it very difficult and I cannot reconcile the legal system I am having to operate under with my own personal ethical beliefs."

A statement from Mr Larkin's office noted that the issue remained under the consideration of the Court of Appeal and said there was no agreed clinical definition of what was a fatal foetal abnormality.

"The Court has been asked to consider, among other things, an argument by the Attorney General for Northern Ireland that the protection of unborn children with disabilities should not be less than that for unborn children without such disabilities," said the statement.

"That argument is based on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities."

Democratic Unionist leader Mrs Foster said she looked forward to receiving the findings of the working group.

"We do understand this is a very, very sensitive issues in and around the whole issue of fatal foetal abnormality," she said.

The First Minister denied that politicians had let down health professionals and expectant mothers dealing with such diagnosis.

"We are taking all of our responsibilities very seriously and that's why we are waiting on this information coming forward (from the working group)," she said.

Mr McGuinness said medical professionals needed more certainty.

"This is a very serious issue and I specifically talk about the issues of fatal foetal abnormalities and I have met with women who have gone through some of the most tragic circumstances imaginable and have had to go to England and have had to come back on some occasions without their baby," he said.

"So I think it is a very serious situation when someone who is part of a professional aspect of this situation is telling us that in spite of all of those who are saying there is certainty out there for consultants and medical professionals it is quite clear as a result of this resignation that there is no certainty."

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