Woman goes to court over continuing confusion on abortion law
A Co Antrim woman twice forced to terminate pregnancies is taking legal action over the continued failure to issue finalised guidelines on abortion in Northern Ireland.
She claims ongoing delays in the Department of Health providing the revised guidance to medical professionals has compounded the trauma of losing her babies.
Her solicitor said that she wants to try to ensure others do not have to go through the same experience.
The woman, granted anonymity in the case, had to travel to a clinic in England in 2013 to terminate twins with fatal foetal abnormalities.
Staff at a Belfast hospital believed they were unable to carry out the abortion due to uncertainty around the law, according to papers in the case.
Unlike other parts of the UK, terminations are illegal in Northern Ireland except in limited circumstances where the mother's life or mental well-being are considered at risk.
Lawyers for the woman are now seeking to judicially review the department, claiming she had a legitimate expectation that the guidance would be published in final form.
Earlier this year, after proceedings were commenced, she discovered that a second pregnancy was also non-viable.
On that occasion, however, she was able to have an abortion at another hospital in Belfast.
Consultants decided that continuing with the pregnancy could have serious consequences for her mental health.
Her legal action represents the latest stage in litigation surrounding the issue stretching back more than a decade.
A previous case brought by the Family Planning Association resulted in the department publishing the first guidance for health professionals in 2009.
But a judge later ruled it did not properly cover areas of counselling and conscientious objection. The guidelines were held to be misleading and had to be withdrawn for reconsideration.
In 2013 it was announced that a new draft was to go before the Stormont Executive and then out to public consultation.
The woman's legal team claims the failure to issue the finalised document since then breaches her family and private life entitlements under the European Convention on Human Rights.
A full hearing was due to begin at the High Court in Belfast this week.
Mr Justice Maguire agreed to adjourn proceedings, however, to allow more time for both sides to finalise their cases.
It was also indicated that the applicant may seek to widen her challenge to include the full Stormont Executive, based on the issues cutting across departmental lines.
Outside court the woman's solicitor, Peter Bowles, said clinicians have been bereft of guidance since 2009.
"Despite repeated assurances from the department, most recently given to the court in March 2013, a further two-and-a-half years have passed and we are no further on," he said.
"This lacuna has inevitably led to inconsistencies in how individuals, like my client, have been dealt with across the health service in Northern Ireland."
Mr Bowles added: "The delay is unacceptable, it has far-reaching and very real consequences for those unfortunate enough to have to utilise the health service in such tragic circumstances and has driven my client to try and achieve a practical change to assist others with the hope that their experience is better than hers."
A spokesperson for the Department of Health said: "Revised guidance has been prepared by the Termination of Pregnancy Working Group.
"Executive approval is required and the minister hopes this can be achieved shortly."