Belfast Telegraph

Woman forced to travel for abortion of baby with fatal abnormality hails report calling for law change in Northern Ireland

By Victoria Leonard

A woman who underwent the "horrendous ordeal" of being forced to travel to Britain for an abortion after being told her unborn child wouldn't survive outside the womb has welcomed a report recommending a law change to provide terminations in cases of fatal foetal abnormality.

Sarah Ewart went to England for the termination in 2013 after her child was diagnosed with anencephaly.

The 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland and abortion is only permitted here if a woman's life is at risk or if there is a risk of real and serious adverse effect on her physical or mental health which is long-term or permanent.

However, a report by an inter-departmental working group on termination in cases of fatal foetal abnormality published yesterday recommends a change to abortion law to allow termination "where the abnormality is of such a nature as to be likely to cause death either before birth, during birth or in the early period after birth".

It also states that "where a diagnosis has been made of such an abnormality, it is to be accepted that the continuance of such a pregnancy poses a substantial risk of serious adverse effect on a woman's health and well-being".

The report defines fatal foetal abnormality as "an acceptable description of a diagnosis made, usually around 20 weeks gestation, of a foetal abnormality which will result in death in utero, at birth or shortly after birth".

It notes that modern diagnostic resources "allow for very accurate information to be provided to women regarding the condition of the foetus and its viability".

Members of the working group, chaired by chief medical officer Michael McBride, met with medical professional bodies and with women and their families who had experienced fatal foetal abnormalities.

The report found that proposals could be made under the existing legal framework to improve the care and support for women with the diagnosis.

It added that "one of the most compelling cases for change was the overall recognition by those health professionals who spoke to the group that the existing legal framework prevents them from fully meeting their duty of care to all women in this situation and therefore denies those women who wish to terminate the pregnancy access to proper standards of health care".

The study said that health professionals deem the current situation "professionally untenable" and have advised that "retaining the existing legal constraints would continue to place an unacceptable burden on women's health and well-being".

The release of the report, completed in October 2016, was delayed by the Departments of Justice and Health until the political structures were reinstated.

However, the departments took the decision to publish it yesterday in the ongoing absence of devolution.

The report's release came exactly a month before the Republic's referendum on abortion.

Last night Ms Ewart, who went public with her own shattering experience and has campaigned for the law to be changed, said she had requested a meeting with Prime Minister Theresa May and the Secretary of State over the issue.

"Five years after my own devastating journey, women here still aren't getting the help they need," she said.

"I am an ordinary woman who suffered a very personal family tragedy, which the law in Northern Ireland turned into a living nightmare.

"My baby was given a diagnosis of anencephaly, a fatal abnormality where the brain does not develop and there is no skull.

"The law here meant I had to travel to access this healthcare at a time when I needed my family, friends and the support of the medical professionals I was used to around me.

"It was a horrendous physical and mental ordeal. Not a day goes by when I don't think about what might have been, but I don't regret the decision I made.

"I hope that these recommendations will lead to a law change that will help women in Northern Ireland be dealt with more compassionately.

"I hope they will save other women from going through the horrendous ordeal I did.

"I'm not saying that every woman given a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality needs to have an abortion, but the option needs to be there for those who can't carry on.

"We've been knocking the doors at Stormont since 2013, and in that time a number of women have contacted me to say they have been diagnosed with fatal foetal abnormality and don't have the option to travel.

"When you receive devastating news about losing your baby you are trying to come to terms with that, never mind organising flights, your stay or finding the money".

Ms Ewart said an "urgent law change is needed".

"This is not a pro-life or pro-choice issue; in my case there was no life to protect," she said.

"I welcome the publication of the report and the support from the medical profession that change is needed.

"I hope the Government pays attention to the recommendation of this report and helps women access services here at home." Amnesty International campaigns manager Grainne Teggart called on the Government to "legislate for abortion reform without any further delay" and said medical professionals "want to see change legislated for".

She added: "Our current law is not fit for purpose for both women and those who care for them.

"No woman, including those whose pregnancies have been given a fatal foetal diagnosis, should be forced to board a plane to access this healthcare.

"Whilst this report calls for a change to the law in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities, it is not the limit of the change that is needed which must go further and include the decriminalisation of abortion."

Sinn Fein vice-president and former Health Minister Michelle O'Neill said the report "highlighted a clear necessity for reform".

She said: "There is obviously a need for a more compassionate approach to the issue of fatal foetal abnormalities as was highlighted by the heartbreaking Sarah Ewart case.

"It was also very evident during my time as Health Minister that medical professionals and clinicians need clarification on the legal position regarding these cases.

"This report from health professionals validates all of that and what we need to see now is the restoration of the power-sharing institutions so that we can get on with legislating on matters such as this."

Former Justice Minister David Ford said he believed "we now have irrefutable evidence of the need to legislate to allow women in Northern Ireland to access abortion in the traumatic circumstances where they are given a diagnosis a child will not survive".

But Bernadette Smyth, head of anti-abortion group Precious Life, said the proposals were "extreme".

"These are only recommendations and we will oppose them," she said. "To allow an abortion law change to enable such scenarios is a backward mindset.

"One of my concerns is there is no mention of a holistic care pathway for women who receive a poor diagnosis.

"We would be very keen to push for better perinatal and hospice care for women in these situations.

"Our concern is that this is abortion being fast-tracked at a time when there is no Assembly."

Anti-abortion group Life NI claimed that the report "takes advantage of the absence of an Executive to try to influence a change in abortion law".

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