8 Jun 2018

Belfast woman to challenge Northern Ireland abortion law

11:13 am on 8 June 2018

A Belfast woman who travelled to Britain for an abortion is to take her case to the High Court in an attempt to change the law in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland resident and campaigner Sarah Ewart, who after having been diagnosed with a fatal foetal abnormality in 2013 traveled to England for a termination,is to take her case to the High Court.

Sarah Ewart said she intended to take a case to Belfast's High Court to seek the declaration of incompatibility with human rights law. Photo: AFP

Northern Ireland has much stricter abortion laws than other parts of the UK.

The Supreme Court earlier ruled that Northern Ireland abortion laws in cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality were incompatible with Convention on Human Rights, but added it did not have the powers to make a formal declaration that the law should be changed.

The case's dismissal means the government is not obliged to change the law, but the seven judges have given a strong nod that reform is needed.

The judges said the case should have been brought by a woman pregnant as a result of a crime or carrying a foetus with a fatal abnormality.

As a result, they did not make a formal declaration of incompatibility, which would normally lead to a change in the law.

Currently, a termination is only permitted 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 1967 Abortion Act was never extended to Northern Ireland.

A fatal foetal abnormality diagnosis means doctors believe an unborn child has a terminal condition and will die in the womb or shortly after birth, although anti-abortion campaigners have argued that terminally-ill babies "can and do defy the odds".

Sarah Ewart has campaigned for a change to Northern Ireland's law in cases of fatal foetal abnormality after she travelled to England for an abortion in 2013 after being told her unborn child would not survive outside the womb.

Hers was one of three cases referred to in the Supreme Court judgment.

"I, and we, will not stop until we can get our own medical care in our own hospitals at home," she said on Thursday.

"The High Court in Belfast and The Supreme Court are in agreement that the law needs to be changed, so let's just do this.

"To Theresa May, I would say: 'We need change and help. This is a medical procedure that we need in our hospitals with our own medical team. Please help us now.'

"I personally have been doing this for five years, and five years is too long.

"People are putting families and pregnancies on hold for fear that this could happen again."

'Yes' campaigners celebrate the official result of the Irish abortion referendum at Dublin Castle in Dublin on May 26, 2018 which showed a landslide decision in favour of repealing the constitutional ban on abortions.

Campaigners celebrate result of the Republic of Ireland referendum which showed a landslide decision in favour of repealing the constitutional ban on abortions. Photo: AFP

The Supreme Court ruling comes just weeks after the Republic of Ireland voted decisively in a referendum to reform the country's strict abortion laws, which had effectively banned all terminations.

The referendum reignited a debate about Northern Ireland's law, with some calling for reform while others - including the biggest party, the Democratic Unionist Party - remain opposed to changing the law.

In a joint statement, the Departments of Health and of Justice said they were now considering the ruling.

The Supremen Court case had been taken by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC), which argued the current law subjects women to "inhuman and degrading" treatment, causing "physical and mental torture," in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

Supreme Court Judge Lord Kerr said that, by a majority of five to two: "The court has expressed the clear view that the law of Northern Ireland on abortion is incompatible with article 8 of the Convention in relation to cases of fatal foetal abnormality and by a majority of four to three that it is also incompatible with that article in cases of rape and incest."

- BBC / Reuters