Belfast Telegraph

Friday 27 May 2016

Abortion law outdated and cruel

Editor's Viewpoint

Published 10/10/2013

It would take a very hard heart not to be moved by the story of Sarah Ewart in this newspaper today. The young mum and her husband were devastated when they were told that the unborn baby was suffering from a severe form of spina bifida and had no chance of survival.

But, unlike any other part of the UK, Sarah could not have a termination here because of our archaic laws. Instead she had to travel to London to have an abortion which she had to pay for.

This was not a decision taken lightly. As Sarah says, the baby was much wanted and had it been affected by a condition like Down's Syndrome she would never have considered a termination. It was not a case of ending an inconvenient pregnancy but rather a purely logical decision given the circumstances. While terminations are permissible here they can only be performed where the mother's life is at risk or there is a long term or permanent risk to her physical or mental health.

Those are extremely restrictive terms and surely this case – and there inevitably will be others of a similar nature – should make the politicians think again.

There is widespread political opposition in the province to any liberalisation of the abortion laws and most MLAs have turned their faces against any moves to extend the UK's laws to Northern Ireland. Most worrying of all is the fact that the medical profession is uncertain as to when exactly doctors can intervene to perform a termination.

New guidelines from the Department of Health have been promised but, inexplicably, keep being delayed, leaving doctors fearful of unwittingly breaking the law.

But surely the plight of women like Sarah Ewart should be a wake-up call to Stormont. There is an old argument that bad cases cannot make good law, but good laws should allow for exceptional circumstances and for compassion to be shown in such instances.

The tragic case of Savita Halappanavar, who died because she was refused a termination in the Republic, spurred the legislators there into action. Maybe Sarah Ewart will have the same effect here.

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