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Report on Northern Ireland's ban on abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality 'may not be made public'

Published 01/12/2016

Unlike other parts of the UK, the 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland [Picture posed]
Unlike other parts of the UK, the 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland [Picture posed]

A much anticipated report examining Northern Ireland's ban on abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality (FFA) may not be made public.

Justice Minister Claire Sugden appeared to cast doubt over the move when she told MLAs the decision would require full Executive approval.

She said: "The report was never intended to be for publication to the general public. It was to inform both myself and the Health Minister and then we would have discussions with the wider Executive.

"That's not to say we won't publish the report."

The document was produced by a panel of experts set up after a High Court judge ruled that the current ban on abortion in cases of sexual crime and fatal foetal abnormality breached human rights legislation.

It includes testimony from families affected by FFA as well as from key professionals and was received by the departments of health and justice in October.

Both ministers intend to bring the findings before the Executive in the New Year.

Miss Sugden, an independent MLA, also rejected suggestions she was duty bound to "toe the Executive line".

"There is a phrase called collective responsibility within Government and in terms of delivery and actually getting the job done I am quite happy to adhere to that," she said.

"I am also mindful that before becoming a minister I did have particular issues in this area and I along with the Health Minister am keen to progress this particular area but I have to also be realistic that this is a Northern Ireland Executive.

"It's something that we as a full government will have to decide on together to move forward."

Abortion is outlawed in Northern Ireland except in a very limited number of cases where the mother's health is at risk.

Last year, a senior judge in Belfast found the ban on terminations in instances of sexual crime or fatal foetal abnormalities was incompatible with international human rights laws.

The ruling was appealed by Attorney General John Larkin QC and Stormont's Department of Justice and judges are considering arguments made during that hearing.

Among the most critical of the minister's comments was Alliance Party MLA Trevor Lunn.

He said: "If any minister wanted to obtain a report which they didn't want to be published why would you announce it, why would you proclaim the fact that you are trying to find a way forward and are commissioning a report?

"You (Miss Sugden) had quite a bit of time here before you become a minister and I am sure you would have been equally frustrated as I am in the situation, and other members are as well.

"And you, now as a member of the Executive, have to toe the Executive line. I think this is absolutely disgraceful. I am disappointed."

Concerns were also expressed by the Green Party's Claire Bailey and Ulster Unionist Doug Beattie.

Mr Beattie said: "During the Justice Minister’s oral evidence to the Justice Committee today the question was asked when the report into Fatal Foetal Abnormality would be released.

"In her answer the Justice Minister said that the report, which has been seen by the First Ministers as well as the Justice and Health Ministers was never designed and commissioned for public release and that there was no guarantee that it would be released.

"Although the Minister didn’t state that it would not be released, she did raise the spectre of concerns that this report might be buried if it does not come to a conclusion that is agreeable to the Sinn Fein/DUP Executive.

"I call on the First Ministers to guarantee that the report on FFA will be released for wider scrutiny regardless of what the Executive approach to the report is going to be. Failure to release the report would be detrimental to public confidence in the Executive and transparency in our accountable government."

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