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Northern Ireland Justice Minister seeks to relax 153-year-old ban on abortions


Anti-abortion protests outside the Marie Stopes Clinic in Belfast in 2012

Anti-abortion protests outside the Marie Stopes Clinic in Belfast in 2012

Sarah Ewart, whose case highlighted the issue last year

Sarah Ewart, whose case highlighted the issue last year


Anti-abortion protests outside the Marie Stopes Clinic in Belfast in 2012

The abortion law in Northern Ireland could change for the first time since the 19th century after the Department of Justice said pregnant women diagnosed with a lethal foetal abnormality should be allowed to have a termination.

If the proposal gets Assembly backing, it means a pregnant woman whose baby could not survive outside the womb would be allowed to have an abortion in Northern Ireland legally.

A consultation launched yesterday is also seeking the public's views on whether abortion should be legal in cases of sexual crime such as rape or incest.

The move on the controversial issue has been hailed by the Family Planning Association in Northern Ireland as a "tremendous step forward".

But pro-life campaigners Precious Life condemned Justice Minister David Ford, saying they will embark on a campaign to ensure their voices are heard.

Launch of the consultation comes just days after new Health Minister Jim Wells spoke of his support for the rights of the unborn child.

Asked if Mr Wells supported the proposed amendment to the law, a Department of Health spokeswoman responded: "Changes to law are a matter for the Department of Justice."

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The only grounds on which a woman can legally have an abortion in Northern Ireland are to save a woman's life, or if there is a risk of permanent and serious damage to her mental or physical health.

It is unlawful to have an abortion under any other circumstances.

Figures show that more than 1,000 women travel from Northern Ireland each year to have an abortion in Britain.

Lethal foetal abnormality is where a baby in the womb has a condition which means it will die either in the womb or shortly after birth.

Under the new proposal two doctors would have to agree when a foetus cannot survive after delivery, meaning that no treatment will be offered after birth.

This would enable a woman to decide whether or not she wanted to continue with the pregnancy at the point when such a judgment is made, usually at the 20-week scan.

The spotlight fell on the issue last year when Sarah Ewart had to travel to England for an abortion after her baby was diagnosed with anencephaly, a severe brain abnormality.

In a second case, a woman known as Laura was told her twin babies would not survive. Both women were refused terminations. Laura was 22 weeks pregnant with twins when she appealed to the then Health Minister Edwin Poots to allow her to have an abortion here.

Both cases led to the Justice Minister saying he wanted to bring a paper to the Executive to re-examine abortion law.

Mr Ford said it was an emotive issue but he believed it was the right time to look at change:

"I consider now is the time to look at the criminal law to consider whether it should be lawful to have an abortion in circumstances where there is no prospect of the foetus being delivered and having a viable life."

Mr Ford said the consultation paper in no way represented proposals for abortion on demand.

"It is not about the wider issues of abortion law, often labelled 'pro-life' and 'pro-choice'. It is about considering legislative changes in two specific sets of circumstances." A spokesman for the Department of Health said: "The minister will consider any implications for the DHSSPS of the consultation to be held by the Department of Justice.

"Legal advice confirmed that the guidance for which he is responsible cannot change the law on lethal foetal abnormality. Changes to law are a matter for the Department of Justice.

"Any changes to the law that would emerge following the consultation would have to be reflected in any guidance produced."

The public consultation will close next January.

The Assembly has final approval for any changes to the law where the controversial petition of concern could be used as a veto.

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