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Northern Ireland abortion law must be amended

By Steven Agnew

Published 02/02/2016

Every week, 20 women from Northern Ireland will travel to England to access abortion services. Stock image
Every week, 20 women from Northern Ireland will travel to England to access abortion services. Stock image

Every week, 20 women from Northern Ireland will travel to England to access abortion services. The circumstances of these women will vary, but will include victims of sexual crime and cases where there is a fatal foetal abnormality.

There is a double injustice here. Those who are victims of a horrific crime, or have suffered a terrible tragedy, have their distress compounded by having to travel away from their home, their family, their friends, to receive healthcare that is being denied to them locally.

They will pay up to £2,000, perhaps getting into debt, for treatment that in Great Britain is part of the healthcare package. Part of the NHS, free at the point of use.

Sarah Ewart, a woman who bravely came forward to tell her story and ask for change, has put a human face on these statistics. Sarah's first pregnancy was diagnosed, at 20 weeks, with anencephaly, which meant there was no chance of survival outside the womb and she risked being poisoned if the foetus died in utero.

Our laws would require her to continue the pregnancy until her life was actually at risk and, even then, a physician would risk life imprisonment if they could not prove that risk in a court.

The High Court has ruled that Northern Ireland's termination laws are in breach of the Human Rights Act and are effectively illegal. Justice Horner ruled that it would be necessary to decriminalise abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, or sexual crime, in order to make our laws human rights compliant.

I am seeking to amend the Justice Bill to give women in these traumatic circumstances a choice. It is unacceptable that some women in Northern Ireland cannot access the medical treatment they need, on their doorstep.

Northern Ireland's archaic laws need to be brought up to date, to reflect the needs of many women in our society.

So, here is an opportunity for my political colleagues: stop wasting time and money on unnecessary appeals and pass these amendments.

We need to support women who have suffered a tragedy - not add to their suffering by denying them healthcare.

  • Steven Agnew MLA is leader of the Green Party in Northern Ireland

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