Challenge against Northern Ireland abortion laws begins in Supreme Court
A legal challenge claiming Northern Ireland's strict abortion laws are in breach of women's human rights will open in the UK's highest court today.
The Supreme Court case is being brought by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC).
It will argue the current legislation on cases of rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality is in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
Abortion is unlawful in Northern Ireland unless it is to preserve the life of the woman, and carries a potential sentence of life imprisonment.
Last year 724 women from here travelled to England for abortions.
In 2015 a High Court judge in Belfast ruled that the current law was in breach of the ECHR in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities or where women are pregnant as a result of sexual crime.
After the Department of Justice and the Attorney General successfully appealed the ruling, the NIHRC has now taken its case to the Supreme Court.
Sarah Ewart, whose first pregnancy was given a fatal foetal diagnosis, meaning she had to travel to England to terminate her pregnancy, said too many women continue to be affected by abortion laws here.
"I am an ordinary woman who suffered a very personal family tragedy, which the law in Northern Ireland turned into a living nightmare," she said.
"I feel that we have been abandoned by our government, whose duty it is to protect our rights. The failure of our politicians to legislate for change has left me with no option but to turn to the courts to have my rights upheld.
"I hope that the Supreme Court will bring about the change that I and other women so desperately need and have been waiting on for so long." Grainne Teggart, Amnesty's Northern Ireland campaigns manager, claimed women here continue to be treated as second-class citizens.
"It is time for the Supreme Court to step in and do what our government has failed to do - protect the long-neglected human rights of women and girls in a part of the UK," she said.
However, pro-life campaigners accused the NIHRC of mounting a "relentless crusade" against unborn babies. The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children urged the UK Government to review the commission's operations.
SPUC development officer Liam Gibson said: "It is now time that Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire urgently took it upon himself to mount a full-scale review of the commission.
"The commission stands accused of abandoning genuine human rights and instead using public funding to target disabled babies for abortion."
Meanwhile, more details of a scheme to provide free abortion services in England for women travelling from Northern Ireland have been released at Westminster by the Equalities Minister Justine Greening.
They include travel and accommodation costs to be covered for women on low incomes; procedures free at the point of delivery, rather than paid for upfront and reimbursed, and a central telephone booking system through which clients will be able to arrange an appointment with a healthcare professional in England.
The scheme will be in place by the end of this year.