The Royal College of Midwives has welcomed a high court ruling that abortion laws in Northern Ireland are in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Currently, unlike the rest of the UK, the 1967 Abortion Act does not apply to Northern Ireland. As a result, termination is only allowed if a woman’s life is considered at risk or there is a permanent or serious risk to her physical or mental health.
“It now gives midwives and other health professionals legal protection and a release from the fear of prosecution”
But yesterday a high court judge in Belfast ruled that legislation in Northern Ireland breached Article 8 of the convention by failing to provide further exceptions to the ban on terminations.
Such exceptions included cases of a fatal foetal abnormality – at any time during the pregnancy – or where the pregnancy is the result of sexual crime – up to the date when the foetus is capable of existing independently of the mother.
As a result of the historic ruling by Mr Justice Horner, Northern Irish clinicians may in future be able to perform terminations in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities, rape or incest without fear of imprisonment, which they cannot do under current legislation, which dates from 1861.
The case was sought by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. It argued the rights of women were breached by current legislation if they were pregnant and there was a serious malformation of the foetus – including where there is a fatal foetal abnormality – or where the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest.
Northern Ireland’s Department of Justice, which the commission took to court over the issue, has six weeks to decide whether to appeal.
Commenting on the judgment, Breedagh Hughes, RCM director for Northern Ireland, said the ruling was “extremely welcome”.
“It now gives midwives and other health professionals legal protection and a release from the fear of prosecution,” she said.
“This will enable midwives to offer women who have a diagnosis of fatal foetal anomaly the appropriate care, support and advice that they also have often been denied because of the [Northern Ireland] Assembly’s inertia,” added Ms Hughes.
“This decision is a very sensible one, and it will help to prevent a great deal of suffering for many women”
She said the assembly’s previous failure to legislate on the issue or provide guidance on how the law should be applied in clinical practice had “left midwives and other health care professionals in a very difficult position for a very long time”.
Ms Hughes noted that the college considered termination to be a healthcare, rather than a moral, issue and that equal access to healthcare should be available to women throughout the UK.
As a result, the RCM argued that if a particular service was not available in Northern Ireland, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety must fund women to access the service elsewhere.
Ms Hughes said: “We do not campaign on changing the law in Northern Ireland – that is for others to do – but we do support women’s rights to access a service that is freely available elsewhere in the UK.
“This decision is a very sensible one, and it will help to prevent a great deal of suffering for many women,” she said. “It is a pity that it took a court judgement to do what the assembly should have done a long time ago.”