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Sarah Ewart travelled to England for a termination

Belfast’s High Court is due to rule on a woman’s challenge against Northern Ireland’s abortion laws.

The court will rule whether the laws are in breach of the UK’s human rights commitments in a landmark case.

Sarah Ewart was denied an abortion in 2013, despite doctors saying her unborn child would not survive outside the womb.

She went to England for a termination and has campaigned to change NI’s law in cases of fatal foetal abnormality.

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.

Rape, incest or diagnoses of fatal foetal abnormality (FFA) – where medics believe that a baby will die before, during or shortly after birth – are not grounds for a legal abortion in Northern Ireland.

The ruling is expected 18 days before abortion legislation is set to change in Northern Ireland.

Legislation brought in by MPs at Westminster in July means abortion will be decriminalised – and the government will have to put in place regulations for abortion services by next April.


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Sarah Ewart arriving at the Supreme Court in London last year

Northern Ireland has been without devolved government since January 2017, when the governing parties – the DUP and Sinn Féin – split in a bitter row.

Various talks have failed to restore the power-sharing institutions.

The new law will take effect if the executive at Stormont is not restored by 21 October.

For this to happen would require the political parties forming the assembly again – something they have been unable to achieve in almost three years.

The Northern Ireland Office (NIO) is planning to launch an awareness campaign related to the expected change in the law on abortion.

Analysis: Potential for closure

By Marie Louise Connolly, BBC News NI Health Correspondent

This High Court ruling is a landmark case. But ever since Westminster got involved it doesn’t have quite the same edge.

July’s intervention by MPs means abortion is going to be decriminalised anyway.

But Thursday may be significant for the woman who has become largely synonymous with the local abortion story.

If the ruling goes Sarah Ewart’s way, it will provide some closure after several years of difficult and distressing campaigning.

Ms Ewart has taken the High Court case in her own name, after a Supreme Court appeal, led by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC), failed last year.

A majority of Supreme Court judges agreed Northern Ireland’s existing legislation was incompatible with human rights law in cases of fatal foetal abnormality and sexual crime.

However, the judges dismissed the NIHRC’s case on a technicality, ruling that the organisation did not have the legal standing to bring such a challenge.

The judges said the case would have had more merit had it been brought by a woman pregnant as a result of sexual crime or carrying a foetus with a fatal abnormality.

Ms Ewart later agreed to lead the challenge based on her own experience.

She sought a judicial review of Northern Ireland’s abortion laws.

Opposition

Late last month, hundreds of health professionals wrote to the Northern Ireland secretary expressing opposition to the liberalisation of these laws.

The doctors, nurses and midwives said their consciences would not allow them to stay silent on the issue.

They said they wanted reassurance as “conscientious objectors” that they would not have to perform or assist abortions.

Those who signed the letter said their concern was for pregnant mothers and their unborn children and, as Christians, it was their firmly held belief that abortion was the “unjust and violent taking of human life”.

Midwives for Both Lives – a group opposed to any change to the law – argues there is “currently no conscientious objection in law in NI for midwives… in contrast to our counterparts in mainland UK who are protected under law and under the NMC code”.


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Both the anti-abortion rally (left) and pro-choice rally attracted large crowds in Belfast city centre in September

On 6 September, crowds gathered at Stormont to protest against the potential changes to abortion law.

On 7 September two rallies – one organised by those who support abortion law change in NI and the other by those who oppose it – took place in Belfast city centre.

Why is the law different in Northern Ireland?

The 1967 Abortion Act, which liberalised the rules in Great Britain, was never extended to Northern Ireland.

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.

Rape, incest or diagnoses of fatal foetal abnormality (FFA) – where medics believe that a baby will die before, during or shortly after birth – are not grounds for a legal abortion in Northern Ireland.

However, anti-abortion campaigners argue that doctors cannot reliably predict the timescale of death and they point to several cases where babies have defied the prognosis and survived into adulthood.

Last year a majority of Supreme Court judges held that those restrictions breach the UK’s human rights obligations.

Source: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk

 

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