Northern Ireland

Abortion law: David Ford accuses SDLP of talking 'nonsense'

David Ford
Image caption Justice Minister David Ford said he was surprised that Alasdair McDonnell, who is also a GP, had said doctors' predictions were "never accurate"

Stormont's justice minister has accused the SDLP leader of talking "nonsense" after he claimed doctors cannot predict when a foetus has a lethal abnormality.

SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell made the remarks last week, as he stated his party's opposition to abortion in cases of lethal foetal abnormality or rape.

Justice Minister David Ford said he was surprised at a GP making such comments.

"I'm not saying they're right 100% of the time, but to suggest they're wrong 100% of the time was just nonsense."

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

Mr Ford told the BBC's Inside Politics programme: "I would be the last person to claim that doctors always get it right, but for a medically qualified politician to say doctors always get it wrong, I found slightly surprising.

"I don't know why he said it because it's absolutely clear that, in terms of the kind of diagnosis which is made from 20-week scans around issue like anencephaly, that by and large obstetricians get it right."

Image caption SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell said "nobody can predict that a foetus is not viable" and said his party opposes abortion in cases of lethal foetal abnormality or rape

Mr Ford's Department of Justice (DoJ) has recently run a public consultation on proposals to change Northern Ireland's abortion law, which differs from the rest of the UK.

Currently, a termination is only legal in Northern Ireland if a woman's life is at risk or if there is a risk of permanent and serious damage to her mental or physical health.

The DoJ recommended allowing abortion in lethal abnormality cases but did not make recommendations for rape cases.

However, Mr McDonnell said last week he was not persuaded of the need to change the abortion law in either case.

"The SDLP is unequivocally opposed to abortion, even in those particular circumstances because basically, the predictions in those circumstances are never accurate," he said.

"Nobody can predict that a foetus is not viable, and that's the problem, and as a GP, I'm fully aware.

"I have seen situations where termination or an abortion was recommended to somebody because a foetus that had this, that or the other thing, and that foetus grew up to be a perfectly normal child."

Mr Ford brought his proposals forward following the case of Sarah Ewart, who contacted the BBC's Nolan Show in 2013, to highlight her experience of being denied an abortion in Northern Ireland.

She travelled to England for a termination, after doctors told her that her baby had no chance of survival.

"We were told we were carrying a baby with anencephaly - it's the worst case of spina bifida so the baby has no skull formed and it's brain dead. It's very hard to come to terms with," Ms Ewart said at the time.

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