Human Rights body legal bid on Northern Ireland abortion law 'ill-timed'
Legal action taken by the Human Rights Commission over the abortion law in Northern Ireland has been branded "ill-timed and unnecessary" by the Department of Justice.
The response came after the NIHRC said it was bringing the case to the High Court as the existing legislation was "a violation of human rights".
The commission wants to change the current law to give women the right choose if they wish to terminate a pregnancy in circumstances where the foteus has a fatal abnormality or when rape or incest occurs.
Women can only have a legal abortion here if their life is at risk or if there is a risk of permanent and serious damage to their mental or physical health.
It comes as the DoJ launched a consultation on potential changes to the law.
In October Justice Minister David Ford said he was making a "strong recommendation" for legislation to allow an abortion in circumstances where there was no prospect of the foetus being delivered and having a viable life, but did not made any recommendation on the issue of termination in the case of sexual crimes.
The NIHRC described this as "not proposing the changes that are necessary".
In a statement, the NIHRC said: "It deals with cases of lethal foetal abnormality, while only seeking public opinion on cases of sexual crime including rape and incest."
A DoJ spokesman said the ongoing public consultation was the "correct forum" in which a human rights institution can make its views known.
"An appropriate process is therefore under way which is seeking to review and adjust the current law.
"The legal action being taken by the NIHRC is therefore ill-timed and unnecessary," the DoJ spokesman added.
Anti-abortion campaign groups had previously condemned Mr Ford's proposals.
Bernadette Smyth, director of Precious Life, last night said she had sought legal advice and plans to fight the NIHRC challenge through the courts.
A recent Belfast Telegraph survey revealed 58% agreed "abortion should be available to any woman who chooses it after being counselled on the available alternatives".
In October Amnesty International published a public attitudes survey showing that close to 70% of people in Northern Ireland supported the introduction of abortion in cases of rape and incest.
Grainne Teggart from Amnesty said a change in the law was needed.
"Whether this is done by a legal challenge or otherwise, legislative change is essential to put an end to the daily attack on women's reproductive rights in Northern Ireland," she said.
What current legislation says about terminations
Q. What are the current laws covering abortion in Northern Ireland?
A. The 1861 Offences against the Person Act and the Criminal Justice Act from 1945.
Q. Are there any exceptions when a termination can be carried out?
A. The only exceptions are to save a woman's life, or if there is a risk of permanent and serious damage to her mental or physical health. Last year official figures confirmed that at least 40 terminations a year are carried out on these grounds.
Q. Do women travel outside Northern Ireland for terminations?
A More than 1,000 women a year who do not fit in these categories travel from Northern Ireland to have an abortion in other parts of the UK.
Q. What current changes are being examined?
A. A consultation paper published by the Department of Justice is seeking views on whether abortion should be legal in cases of sexual crime such as rape or incest. It recommends abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality.
Q. What will this mean if it is passed?
A. It would mark the first change in legislation in more than a century. Women could legally be able to have a termination here if a fatal foetal abnormality is detected.
Q. Why has the legal challenge by the the Human Rights Commission been launched?
A. The NIHRC says the consultation does not commit to making "necessary" changes and makes no recommendation in the case of sex crimes.