Abortions based on likelihood of disability banned by international treaty, court told
Selecting unborn children for abortion because of disability is prohibited by an international treaty, Northern Ireland's top law officer claimed yesterday.
Attorney General John Larkin QC also told the High Court that a Belfast woman challenging the near-blanket ban on terminations here does not have the necessary victim status.
However, counsel for Sarah Ewart countered that she had been forced to put off having children because of fears they would have the same fatal condition which led to her travelling to England for an abortion.
Final submissions came as judgment was reserved in Mrs Ewart's bid to change the strict regime.
Before rising after two days of argument, Mrs Justice Keegan said: "I obviously have a lot to think about."
Unlike the rest of the UK, terminations are only legal in Northern Ireland when it is necessary to protect the woman's life or when there is a serious risk to her wellbeing.
Last year a majority of Supreme Court judges held that those restrictions breached the UK's human rights obligations.
They still rejected a case mounted by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, however, because it did not have the necessary legal standing.
Mrs Ewart (28), has now mounted a challenge in her own name as a woman directly affected by a ban she claims violates her human rights.
In 2013 she travelled to a London clinic after being told her unborn child had no chance of survival outside the womb because of a fatal foetal abnormality (FFA).
Her lawyers contended it should be highly persuasive that the Supreme Court decided, by a majority, that the law in Northern Ireland was incompatible with Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights in FFA cases.
They said Mrs Ewart's shock at being told her foetus had no skull or developed brain was compounded by the trauma and humiliation of travelling to England for the procedure, which she likened to being "on a conveyor belt". But according to Mr Larkin, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities extends to a prohibition on discrimination before birth - and has been designated as an EU treaty.
Arguing that every human being has the inherent right to life, he told the court: "The unborn child belongs to the human race.
"Selecting out some unborn children for abortion on the basis of disability is prohibited."
Assertions that this includes FFA cases were strongly disputed by counsel representing Mrs Ewart.
During submissions, Mr Larkin also argued that her challenge must fail because no unlawful act required to obtain the necessary victim status exists.
He acknowledged, however, that she went through a "dreadful experience" in 2013.
If Mrs Ewart had issued proceedings at that stage, she could have declared herself a victim, the court was told.
But the Attorney General contended that it was abstract to suggest the same condition will occur in any future pregnancy.
However, Mrs Ewart's barrister, Adam Straw, claimed the current abortion rules render the mother-of-two a victim.
"She had to put on hold her wish to have more children because of the concerns about the same trauma which happened to her in 2013 happening again," Mr Straw said.
Rejecting the idea of leaving the issue for any future restored administration at Stormont, Mr Straw also stressed the urgency for his client and other women who find themselves in the same situation.
"If this case is, to use a colloquial term, kicked into the long grass and sent back to the Assembly, there will be a considerable delay before anything is done about it," he said.