Northern Ireland

Abortion: Court challenge to NI law under way

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Media captionThe judicial review is being held at the High Court in Belfast

A legal challenge to Northern Ireland's abortion law has begun at the High Court in Belfast.

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) wants abortion to be legalised in cases of rape, incest or "serious malformation" of a foetus.

Such cases are not grounds for a legal termination in Northern Ireland, where the law differs from Great Britain.

The High Court judicial review will take submissions from both pro-choice and anti-abortion campaigners.

Representing the NIHRC, Nathalie Lieven QC said Northern Ireland's courts could not avoid issues such as abortion just because they were too morally sensitive, politically controversial or just because they were too difficult.

The barrister also said resolving cases where the foetus had a fatal abnormality could not be left to the executive because judging by their actions to date a decision to legislate may or may not ever be taken.

'Misconceived'

She told Mr Justice Horner: "The respondent and the attorney general argue this is a matter which should simply be left to the executive, and they do to some degree rely on the fact that there has been a consultation process on changing the law on abortion.

"That argument is completely misconceived for a whole host of reasons.

"It's simply wrong in principle - there's a duty on the court to consider the question of compatibility, and the court cannot defer that consideration in the hope or expectation that the executive might change the law at some unknown date in the future."

Such a situation would be contrary to the fundamentals of the European Convention, she said.

The barrister also cited figures showing 802 women and girls from Northern Ireland travelled to England and Wales for abortions in 2013.

Five of those were aged under 16, the court heard. Two years earlier 19 girls in that age group made the trip.

'Living nightmare'

Among those making submissions will be Sarah Ewart, a Northern Ireland resident whose personal story put abortion back on the news agenda in 2013 when she spoke to the Nolan Show on BBC Radio Ulster.

Image caption Sarah Ewart and Amnesty's Grainne Teggart were attending Monday's court hearing

At 20 weeks pregnant, she travelled to England for an abortion after her baby had been diagnosed with anencephaly, a condition in which the brain has not developed.

Under current abortion law in Northern Ireland, she was advised that as her health was not at risk she would have to carry the baby full term.

After going public, her story triggered political and legal debate and led to the NIHRC's judicial review action.

Ahead of the hearing, Mrs Ewart said: "I am an ordinary woman who suffered a very personal family tragedy, which the law in Northern Ireland turned into a living nightmare.

"I was told that my baby was likely to die before being born or shortly afterwards. All I kept thinking was - 'our baby has no brain, she cannot live'.

'No option'

"I simply could not face it, but the law in Northern Ireland meant I had no option but to go to England and take myself away from the care of the doctors and midwife who knew me. I was 23 years old and totally devastated.

"I, and many women like me have been failed by our politicians. After they left me with no option but to go to England for medical care. Now, by their refusal to change the law, they leave me with no option but to go to the courts on my and other women's behalf."

Image caption Sarah Ewart (right) and her mother Jane Christie have lobbied MLAs to change the law

Amnesty International is also joining the court challenge to Northern Ireland's abortion law.

Grainne Teggart from Amnesty said: "Northern Ireland's laws on abortion date back to the 19th Century, carry the harshest criminal penalties in Europe and fail to protect women who have been raped, are victims of incest or whose pregnancies have been given a fatal foetal diagnosis."

She said the Northern Ireland Assembly was also failing women on a daily basis by not legislating for change.

"Up to 2,000 women leave Northern Ireland every year to access termination of pregnancy services. That reality is a damning indictment of the executive's failure to prioritise women's healthcare," she said.

'Very undemocratic'

However, Bernadette Smyth, director of the anti-abortion group Precious Life, criticised the NIHRC's legal action.

Image caption Anti-abortion campaigner Bernadette Smyth criticised the NIHRC's legal action as "undemocratic"

"I'm really concerned at this point that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission has totally ignored the views of the people here and the politicians. It's a very undemocratic move," Ms Smyth said.

"I'm greatly concerned that a so-called human rights organisation wants to take a case that will take the rights of unborn children, who have a fundamental right to be born."

Other groups making submissions to the judicial review are Alliance for Change, Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child, Catholic Bishops NI, the Family Planning Association, Marie Stopes and Northern Ireland's attorney general.

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