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Abortion law 'cruel and degrading'

Published 15/06/2015

Sarah Ewart, left, who had to travel to England to have an abortion in 2013, with Grainne Teggart from Amnesty International
Sarah Ewart, left, who had to travel to England to have an abortion in 2013, with Grainne Teggart from Amnesty International

Forcing women to travel hundreds of miles to access abortion services is cruel, degrading and inhuman, a court in Northern Ireland has been told.

Barrister Natalie Lievan QC, branded the region's strict laws a "sham" which discriminated against and re-traumatised vulnerable and distressed women.

Ms Lievan told Belfast High Court: "The Northern Ireland criminal law is forcing further trauma on these women and girls by forcing them to travel.

"Once you accept that women have the choice to travel, which most though not all do, there is no retention of the unborn.

"It is a sham."

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) is seeking to change the law in Northern Ireland to legalise abortion in cases of serious foetal malformation, rape and incest.

At present, 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.

The 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland and anyone who unlawfully carries out an abortion could be jailed for life.

The judicial review is expected to last for three days and is being heard before Mr Justice Mark Horner.

The region's Attorney General John Larkin is expected to make oral submissions while a range of pro life and pro choice campaigners have submitted written arguments.

Mr Justice Horner said: "There have been an enormous number of matters raised."

Opening the case for the NIHRC, Ms Lievan claimed the court was duty bound to rule on the contentious issue.

She said a decision could not be avoided because an issue was morally sensitive, politically controversial or too difficult and that rights enshrined under the European Convention of Human Rights were universal.

"It does not matter what the moral view of society is, Convention rights are universal," the barrister said.

The court was also told that during 2013, 802 women travelled from Northern Ireland to England and Wales for terminations - five of whom were aged under 16.

During 2010/11, a total of 19 girls who were under 16 travelled to England for an abortion.

Ms Lievan said the figures should be taken as a minimum because some women used alternative addresses.

Highlighting the case of a 13 year old girl who became pregnant as a result of incest, Ms Lievan said the teenager had been left "frightened and distressed" when told she would have to travel to England for an abortion.

"It is difficult to imagine, indeed it is impossible to say that forcing the girl to go through that experience is not Article 3 (European Convention of Human Rights) mistreatment," the lawyer said.

A victim of gang rape was also further traumatised when she too learned that abortion services were not available locally, it was claimed.

During 2013 there were 515 reports of sexual assaults on girls aged 13 and over; 263 sexual assaults on girls aged under 13 and 217 reports of sexual activity with a child under 16. There were also four cases of incest and four cases of sexual activity without consent, the court heard.

Abortion remains an emotive issue across Northern Ireland and public opinion is deeply divided.

Ms Lievan said it was "completely misconceived" to leave the matter to politicians at the devolved Assembly at Stormont.

"It is simply wrong in principle," she argued. "There is a duty on the court to consider the question of compatibility. The court cannot defer that decision in the hope and expectation that the Executive might change the law at some unknown date in the future."

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 any recommendations in cases of rape or incest.

Opening his case, Tony McGleenan QC representing the Department of Justice, claimed that the NIHRC was not empowered to take the court action wh ich could potentially undermine the foundation of legislation across the UK and Ireland.

He said: "This case is properly understood to be about the exceptions to the rule...

"In a complaint about the scope of the exceptions, the target is the rule."

The NIHRC was granted leave to pursue the judicial review in February. It said legal proceedings had been launched as a last resort.

Speaking ahead of the case, chief commissioner Les Allamby said: "We recognise the particular sensitivities of the issue. 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 in this area."

Sarah Ewart, 24, whose first pregnancy was diagnosed with anencephaly - a severe brain anomaly which meant the skull had not developed properly - was also represented in court.

Ms Ewart went public about how she had to travel to England after being refused an abortion in 2013.

Speaking ahead of the case, she said: "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."

Among those in the public gallery for the hearing, was prominent anti-abortion campaigner Bernadette Smyth.

Outside, Ms Smyth, who is director of the group Precious Life, said : "The Human Rights Commission are deliberately ignoring the democratic wishes of the people who have made clear that abortion will never be in our name.

"They are trying to allow abortion in by the back door."

The case continues.

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