Girl ‘taken from classroom to be questioned by police over abortion pills’
The teenager’s mother is taking a judicial review against the decision to charge her for procuring the medication online.
A Northern Ireland schoolgirl whose mother is facing prosecution for buying her abortion pills was taken from a classroom by police officers and spoken to about the alleged crime without her parents being present, a court has heard.
A barrister for the mother outlined the circumstances of the case as she urged judges to rule that her looming prosecution is in contravention of human rights laws.
The woman is taking a judicial review in Belfast High Court against the decision to charge her for procuring online abortion medication for her pregnant 15-year-old child.
The case, known as JR76, represents the latest challenge to Northern Ireland’s restrictive laws on terminations.
Unlike other parts of the UK, the 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland, meaning abortion is illegal except where a woman’s life is at risk or there is a permanent or serious danger to her mental or physical health.
Opening the case, the mother’s barrister Karen Quinlivan QC told a panel of three senior judges, including Northern Ireland’s Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan, that the prosecution could have a “chilling effect” on women seeking help from their GPs.
The GCSE student had gone to her local doctor a week after taking the abortion medication. She was subsequently referred to a mental health counselling service, which in turn informed Social Services. Social Services then alerted the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
The barrister said investigating police officers then arrived at the child’s school and removed her from a classroom to speak to her in the absence of her parents.
“The prosecution will have a chilling effect on access to healthcare in these circumstances,” said Ms Quinlivan.
The barrister told the court the teenage girl was “extremely vulnerable” at the time of her pregnancy, claiming her then ex-boyfriend was “physically and emotionally abusive” toward her.
She said the case centred on a “vulnerable child facing a crisis pregnancy in a jurisdiction which criminalises abortions”.
Ms Quinlivan insisted the mother acted in her daughter’s “best interests”.
The lawyer then quoted from a statement given by the teenager outlining why a toxic relationship with her former boyfriend had influenced her decision to terminate the pregnancy.
This has caused them immense distress and anguish which has been constant over the past five years. Solicitor Jemma Conlon
“The idea of him being the father to my child and him being in our life in the long term made me physically ill,” the girl said.
The mother, who cannot be named for legal reasons, is facing two counts of procuring and supplying the abortion drugs with the intent to procure a miscarriage, contrary to the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act.
She could face up to five years in prison if convicted.
The woman is taking a judicial review, claiming the decision to prosecute contravenes her human rights. The case is due to be heard over two days.
The mother is supported by Amnesty International and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, which are both interveners in the case.
In the summer, the Commission lost a Supreme Court appeal over the legality of the region’s abortion law.
But a majority of judges said the existing law was incompatible with human rights law in cases of fatal foetal abnormality and sexual crime.
The three judges pressed Ms Quinlivan whether not prosecuting the women would “open the door” for further unregulated use of abortion medication bought over the internet.
Lord Justice Gillen presented a hypothetical scenario of one of the woman’s neighbours also deciding to seek abortion pills online, but doing so through a “cowboy outfit” that paid little regard to safeguards.
“Does that mean woman A would be prosecuted and woman B would not?” he asked.
The judge added: “It could open the door to parents trying the best they can, but being totally ignorant of what the appropriate safeguards are.”
Sir Declan acknowledged the girl had found herself in a “difficult and sensitive dilemma” but questioned what the outcome might be if the judicial review was upheld.
“Then we would in effect open the door to every child in this dilemma – and it’s a difficult and sensitive dilemma – they would know this is a course they could take without the risk of prosecution,” he said.
A no-prosecution stance is essentially validating the widespread abuse of this medication outside of a clinical context Dr Tony McGleenan, NI PPS
Lord Justice Weatherup said while the drugs were legal in other parts of the UK they were only supposed to be taken in a controlled environment under medical supervision, adding: “That’s obviously for public health reasons.”
Ms Quinlivan insisted the stipulation in Great Britain for the pills to be taken under supervision was an “historical” issue related to old legislation and not a clinical necessity.
However, presenting the case for Northern Ireland’s Public Prosecution Service, Dr Tony McGleenan QC said the parties in the case “differ fundamentally” on the potential consequences of taking the medication without supervision.
He said there were “dangerous risks” inherent with self-administration. He said those were particularly acute in cases of ectopic pregnancies – when a fertilised egg implants itself outside of the womb – and said that was why anyone who takes the pills should have an ultrasound scan before doing so.
Mr McGleenan said “international medical norms” advised that the drugs should be taken under clinical supervision, citing the World Health Organisation as one of the authorities advocating that approach.
“It’s not an historical anomaly or artefact related to legislation,” he said, “it’s a matter of safety and appropriate clinical care.”
Mr McGleenan said if the PPS opted not to prosecute such cases it would encourage others to use the drugs without supervision.
“A no-prosecution stance is essentially validating the widespread abuse of this medication outside of a clinical context,” he said.
He noted the Supreme Court judgment, but stressed that a formal “declaration of incompatibility” had not been made, so the relevant sections of the 1861 legislation criminalising abortion in Northern Ireland were still “valid”.
Ahead of the hearing on Tuesday morning, anti-abortion and pro-choice campaigners gathered outside the court with placards and posters.
The mother’s solicitor Jemma Conlon said the woman and her daughter had been forced to “constantly relive a traumatic and private family matter under the weight of this prosecution”.
She added: “This has caused them immense distress and anguish which has been constant over the past five years.”
Bernie Smyth, from anti-abortion group Precious Life, said: “We are here because our laws matter in Northern Ireland.
“We have a law that protects both the mother and the unborn child.
“Our laws must be upheld and we are hopeful that the judge will uphold the laws here in Northern Ireland.”