N Ireland court hears challenge to prosecution of woman over abortion pills

Credit: thanasus/Shutterstock.
Credit: thanasus/Shutterstock.

.- The High Court in Belfast began hearing a challenge Thursday to the decision to prosecute a woman who allegedly procured abortifacient medication five years ago for her daughter, who was 15-years-old at the time.

The hearing is taking place Sept. 20-21, and a ruling is expected in the coming months.

Abortion is legally permitted in Northern Ireland only if the mother's life is at risk or if there is risk of permanent, serious damage to her mental or physical health. Abortion pills are illegal in Northern Ireland.

Seanin Graham wrote in the Irish News that the woman “faces two charges of unlawfully procuring and supplying the pills with intent to cause a miscarriage” under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861.

The pills were purchased online in July 2013.

Elective abortion is legal in the rest of the United Kingdom up to 24 weeks, and Northern Irish women have been able to procure free National Health Service abortions in England, Scotland, and Wales since November 2017.

If she is is successfully prosecuted, the woman could face imprisonment. But another Belfast woman who was prosecuted for buying abortion pills online and procuring an abortion thereby was given a three-month suspended sentence in April 2016.

She is being supported in her challenge by Amnesty International, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, the Family Planning Association, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, and the Abortion Support Network.

Grainne Teggart, an Amnesty International spokesperson, said the case “is a direct challenge to the criminalisation of women and abortion in Northern Ireland.”

A pro-life spokesperson, Bernie Smyth of Precious Life, countered that Northern Irish women are already provided “all genuine medical treatment”, and pointed out that the Northern Ireland Assembly has voted against “any change to our pro-life laws”.

Bills to legalize abortion in cases of fatal fetal abnormality, rape, or incest failed in the assembly in 2016.

The woman's legal challenge is one of several efforts to relax Northern Ireland's abortion laws.

The UK Supreme Court threw out a case challenging Northern Ireland's abortion law in June 2018, saying the commission which brought the case does not have standing to do so. However, the judges also said the current law violates the European Convention on Human Rights.

Lord Mance, delivering the judgement June 7, said that had the commission the competence to bring the challenge, “I would have concluded … that the current Northern Ireland law is incompatible with article 8 of the [European human rights] convention insofar as it prohibits abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, rape and incest but not insofar as it prohibits abortion in cases of serious foetal abnormality.”

Four of the seven judges agreed that Northern Ireland abortion law is incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights in cases of fatal fetal abnormality, rape, and incest. A fifth agreed it is incompatible only in cases of fatal fetal abnormality.

But the court unanimously agreed that banning the abortion of unborn children with serious, but not fatal, abnormalities is compatible with the ECHR.

Yet Les Allamby, chief commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, who is supporting the woman's legal challenge to her prosecution, called the case an “extremely important case; it is the first time that local courts will be able to consider how our laws criminalise termination of pregnancy since the Commission’s Supreme Court judgement in June.”

He said the Supreme Court had “outlined that Northern Ireland’s laws on termination of pregnancy are contrary to human rights standards,” and argued that “the court in Belfast should follow the judgement of the Supreme Court when coming to its decision in this case.”

“Women and girls continue to face being criminalised in what should be solely a healthcare matter,” Allamby claimed. “We are supportive of the growing public and parliamentary momentum calling for change on this issue.”

Northern Ireland's abortion law could be taken up by either the Northern Ireland Assembly or the Parliament of the United Kingdom.

The Northern Ireland Assembly is currently suspended. The Democratic Unionist Party, the largest party, is opposed to changing the law. Sinn Féin, another prominent party in Northern Ireland, backs a liberalization of the abortion law.

British prime minister Theresa May has said abortion should be a devolved issue for Northern Ireland. But Labour MP Diana Johnson is expected to introduce next month into the British Parliament a bill to decriminalize abortion in Northern Ireland.

Tags: Northern Ireland, Mifepristone, Chemical abortion