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Wait for ruling in abortion case

Published 09/06/2015

Judges have reserved a decision in an abortion case affecting women from Northern Ireland
Judges have reserved a decision in an abortion case affecting women from Northern Ireland

The Court of Appeal has reserved judgment on a challenge by a young woman and her mother to a ruling that prevents women from Northern Ireland receiving free abortions on the NHS in England.

Three appeal judges said they would take time to consider their decision.

They were told the case is of considerable significance as some 2,000 women and girls from Northern Ireland, where abortion is banned, come to England for terminations every year.

The 18-year-old applicant was aged 15 when she made the journey in October 2012 with her mother and was told she had to pay hundreds of pounds for a private termination because she was excluded from free abortion services.

Referred to in court as A to protect her identity, she and her mother are challenging a decision of Mr Justice King in the High Court in London in May last year that the exclusion was lawful.

The judge ruled the Health Secretary was entitled to adopt a residence-based system so that women resident in Northern Ireland are not entitled to benefit from NHS abortion services in England, even though they are UK citizens.

He declared A had no right under Article 8 (right to privacy and family life) of the European Convention of Human Rights to a state-funded abortion, and there was no breach of anti-discrimination laws under Article 14.

He said devolutionary powers had to be taken into consideration.

As Northern Ireland is not covered by the 1967 Abortion Act, which applies in the rest of the UK, it was not a discrimination issue.

Stephen Cragg QC, appearing for mother and daughter, argued their appeal should be allowed because the High Court decision was legally flawed in a number of respects, and errors had been made on human rights issues.

Backed by the Alliance for Choice organisation, which campaigns to extend legal abortion to Northern Ireland, he argued the Health Secretary was failing to comply with a duty imposed by the 2006 National Health Services Act.

He told the appeal judges - Lord Justice Moore-Bick, Lord Justice Elias and Lord Justice McCombe - that the current situation was causing desperation and stress for the women and girls involved.

Lawful abortions were only available in rare, highly exceptional circumstances in Northern Ireland, which did not include, for example, rape, incest or foetal abnormality.

The 2013 abortion statistics for England and Wales disclosed that 5,469 abortions were carried out for women not resident in England in that year. Of that number, 802 - or 15% - were for women from Northern Ireland.

But Northern Ireland's Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and the Family Planning Association considered those figures to be "a significant underestimation".

They were based on patients' addresses, and it was widely accepted that women seeking abortions gave false addresses for fear of detection.

Mr Cragg said those agencies considered the true figure to be around 2,000 a year.

He added: "We are looking at UK citizens who are in a position they should not find themselves in. We are saying the fact that they are citizens of the UK is an important factor."

He said A had travelled to England with her mother and had a termination at a private clinic at the substantial cost of £900 because she was excluded from the NHS.

Hers was a low income family and the operation was only possible because of funds provided by a charity.

The stress of the experience was harrowing for both mother and daughter, said Mr Cragg.

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