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Women forced into abortion in England 'being failed by law' in Northern Ireland

By Lesley-Anne McKeown

Published 15/06/2015

Sarah Ewart
Sarah Ewart

A woman who had to travel hundreds of miles for an abortion after learning her unborn baby had no chance of survival has said the law is failing women in Northern Ireland.

Sarah Ewart (24), whose first pregnancy was diagnosed with anencephaly - a severe brain anomaly which meant the skull had not developed properly - claimed she was compelled to join a landmark legal action after being refused a termination in 2013.

"I and many women like me have been failed by our politicians. After they left me with no option but to go to England for medical care, now by their refusal to change the law, they leave me with no option but to go to the courts on my and other women's behalf," Ms Ewart said.

The case is being taken by the Humans Rights Commission and will be heard over three days at Belfast High Court.

The commission, which argues it is inhuman and cruel to make women travel outside Northern Ireland to access an abortion, is seeking to have the procedure legalised in cases of fatal foetal malformation and sexual crime.

Ms Ewart added: "I am an ordinary woman who suffered a very personal family tragedy, which the law in Northern Ireland turned into a living nightmare.

"My baby was given a diagnosis of anencephaly, a fatal abnormality where the brain does not develop and there is no skull. I was told that my baby was likely to die before being born or shortly afterwards.

"All I kept thinking was, 'Our baby has no brain, she cannot live'. I simply could not face it but the law in Northern Ireland meant I had no option but to go to England and take myself away from the care of the doctors and midwife who knew me. I was 23 years old and totally devastated."

The 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland.

Terminations are only legal if a woman's life is at risk of if there is a permanent or serious risk to her mental or physical health. Anyone who unlawfully carries out an abortion could be jailed for life.

Ms Ewart does not want the introduction of abortion on demand but said choices should be offered to women in certain limited circumstances.

"Currently, the only way I could have got help was if I said I was going to take my own life," she said.

"I just feel so passionately that I need to change this because it could happen again."

Every year up to 2,000 women travel from Northern Ireland to England to termination clinics.

Following a public consultation the Department of Justice (DoJ) has recommended abortion be legalised in cases of lethal foetal abnormality but the consultation paper did not make recommendations in cases of rape or incest.

The Human Rights Commission said legal proceedings had been issued against the DoJ as a last resort.

Chief commissioner Les Allamby said: "It is a matter of significant public interest to ensure that the rights of vulnerable women and girls in these situations are protected. It is in everyone's interest that the law is clarified."

Amnesty International and Marie Stopes, which operates Ireland's only private abortion clinic in Belfast, are among a number of organisations expected to make submissions to the court.

A number of pro-life groups are expected to contest any changes to the existing law.

NI Attorney General John Larkin is also expected to make oral representations to the court.

A final decision in the case is not expected until the autumn.

Belfast Telegraph

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