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Ruling on abortion offers hope

Editor's Viewpoint

Published 01/12/2015

Interestingly, the judge, Mr Justice Horner, made a distinction between unborn babies which could not live after birth and those with serious malformations which could go on to enjoy life. The latter he said should not be exempted from the current law on abortion
Interestingly, the judge, Mr Justice Horner, made a distinction between unborn babies which could not live after birth and those with serious malformations which could go on to enjoy life. The latter he said should not be exempted from the current law on abortion

The High Court ruling that Northern Ireland's abortion legislation breaches human rights laws is a commonsense, pragmatic and above all compassionate decision. It offers hope to those women who find themselves carrying a foetus which develops an abnormality, making it impossible to exist outside the womb and to women who find themselves pregnant as a result of rape or incest.

Interestingly, the judge, Mr Justice Horner, made a distinction between unborn babies which could not live after birth and those with serious malformations which could go on to enjoy life. The latter, he said, should not be exempted from the current law on abortion.

Currently the law only allows for a termination in Northern Ireland if the mother's life or her physical and mental health are at risk.

This challenge to the current abortion legislation in Northern Ireland was sparked by the tragic case of Sarah Ewart, who was forced to go to England for a termination after discovering at 20 weeks that the baby she was carrying had a fatal abnormality which would make it impossible for it to survive after birth. This was a woman who didn't agree with abortion before facing her own trauma. But she saw it as being forced to carry a dead body rather than a baby with a viable future and described the law as silly.

That is what lies at the very heart of this case. How is it right or moral to make any woman go through such trauma.

There are many people in Northern Ireland who are strongly opposed to any change in the abortion laws here. They are perfectly entitled to hold that viewpoint, but as the judge said, human rights legislation exists to prevent one group of people imposing their will - backed up by the imposition of criminal sanctions - on another group where certain protected rights are at issue.

Nevertheless, there is merit in keeping the exemptions to the current law as tightly drawn as possible. Around 1,000 women from here have terminations in other parts of the UK annually, a figure that many people will look at with concern, regarding many of those procedures as lifestyle choices rather than medical imperatives.

The abortion debate here is dominated by men. Perhaps it could proceed more positively if female MLAs - all 22 out of the 108 total - took the lead, maybe with a woman as First Minister. Could that produce more realism?

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