Plea for reform of Northern Ireland's strict abortion laws
There is substantial support for changing Northern Ireland's strict abortion laws, the Justice Minister David Ford has claimed.
Mr Ford wants to alter legislation to allow terminations in cases where there is a lethal foetal abnormality.
The proposal follows a public consultation on the contentious issue.
Mr Ford said: "After full and careful consideration of the evidence submitted, I have concluded that to change the law along the lines outlined in the consultation paper is the right thing to do."
The minister is now seeking approval from the Stormont Executive to bring forward legislation that would make it legal for women whose baby has no chance of survival outside the womb to terminate the pregnancy early.
If passed, it would mark the first change to the region's abortion laws in more than a century.
Mr Ford said: "In the limited circumstances of a foetal abnormality which is likely to cause death either before birth, during birth or in an initial period after birth, and where no treatment other than palliative care could be offered to improve the chances of survival, my view is that the health and wellbeing of the woman must take priority and that the law should be clear and offer certainty.
"I therefore intend to proceed to ask the Executive for its approval to bring forward legislation to the Assembly which would allow for termination of pregnancy in these tragic cases."
The minister is also proposing to allow for the inclusion of a conscience clause in the legislation, but will not proceed with changes relating to pregnancy resulting from sexual crime.
Northern Ireland is not covered by the 1967 Abortion Act and every year more than 1,000 women travel to clinics in England, Scotland and Wales where access to an abortion is allowed up to 24 weeks into pregnancy on grounds that include abnormalities which could lead to a child being seriously disabled.
The issue gained prominence last October when Sarah Ewart went public about how she was forced to travel to London for a termination after her baby was diagnosed with anencephaly, a severe brain anomaly which meant the skull had not developed properly.
Another woman, known only as Laura, who was 22 weeks pregnant with twins suffering from the same fatal condition, also spoke out about being told she would have to fly to England for an abortion.
Earlier MLAs on the justice scrutiny committee were briefed by departmental officials on the matter at Stormont.
They were told there had been 712 individually written responses to the consultation, 579 of which opposed change.
There were also 65 responses from representative organisations and interested groups, 47 of which supported reform.
A total of 921 letters opposing change were written in support of seven lobby campaigns which may have been organised by individual churches or faith groups and a petition opposing any alteration of the law was signed by 23,622 people and submitted.
Former health minister Edwin Poots accused the Department of Justice of ignoring the views of over 99% of the respondents.
The DUP MLA for Lagan Valley said: "You have engaged in a public consultation exercise and then ignored the outcome."
Meanwhile, the SDLP's Alban Maginness said: "I does seem to me that there was a pre-ordained outcome to it."
Stewart Dickson, an Alliance Party MLA said he believed his party leader, Mr Ford, had handled the matter "incredibly sensitively".
Officials said they hoped to bring forward a bill before the Assembly's summer recess.
Amnesty International campaigner Grainne Teggart described Northern Ireland's abortion laws as draconian and said change was long overdue.
She said: "Today is an important step towards much needed reform of our draconian abortion laws, which are among the harshest in Europe.
"We call on the Northern Ireland Executive to seize this opportunity to enable women whose pregnancies have a fatal foetal abnormality to access abortion services locally.
"Hundreds of women are forced to leave Northern Ireland every year just to access health care to which they should be entitled. That only adds to the trauma these women experience. Northern Ireland's politicians have shirked their responsibilities to women's health for too long. Change is long overdue."