Ulster abortion campaigners win right to review of the law

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The Independent Online

Pro-abortionists in Northern Ireland have taken an historic first step in their campaign to make it easier for doctors in the province to terminate pregnancies.

A Belfast judge gave permission yesterday for a challenge to laws which force hundreds of women each year to travel to the British mainland for abortions. Sitting in the High Court in Belfast, Mr Justice Kerr granted leave for judicial review to the Family Planning Association, which will now present its full case at a court hearing later in the year.

The association wants the Department of Health in Northern Ireland to clarify the law by introducing guidelines on abortion to end "the unnecessary burden" faced by women in the province. But the judge deferred a decision on whether to allow the Catholic Church and other parties to become involved in the case. Instead he gave them three weeks to file written submissions.

In court yesterday the Family Planning Association's barrister, Lord Lester QC, accused the Department of Health of sitting on the fence over the issue of abortion rights.

Under Ulster law it can be a criminal offence to perform an abortion in Northern Ireland.

The Government has recently written to other pro-abortion campaigners making it clear that it is not prepared to extend the 1967 Abortion Act to the province. The Act grants full abortion rights to women in England, Scotland and Wales but has not been introduced in Northern Ireland because of the strength of Catholic objections.

Each year about 1,500 women from Northern Ireland travel to England for abortions. Lord Lester said the province was in a unique situation in not having a detailed statutory regime relating to abortion. The Family Planning Association argues that because doctors are not sure of the circumstances in which they can legally perform abortions they have to err on the side of caution.

Lord Lester said the Government must begin instructing doctors and other medical staff to ensure that under European Human Rights legislation women had proper access to termination.

But Lord Lester denied claims from anti-abortion groups that the Family Planning Association was seeking a change in the law. "We would not have the standing in these proceedings to seek a cohesive form of rules to require the Secretary of State in London to give the necessary order for the Northern Ireland Assembly to introduce amending legislation similar to the 1967 Abortion Act in England and Wales," he said.

"Pro-life" supporters in Northern Ireland expressed concern at the High Court decision and pledged to fight any changes. Betty Gibson, Northern Ireland organiser of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, said there should be no doubt that the aim of the Family Planning Association was to liberalise abortion law in the province. "The FPA is part of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, which is committed to introducing abortion on demand throughout the world by all possible means," she said. "Abortion law is perfectly clear in Northern Ireland and the vast majority of doctors know exactly what the situation is."

Audrey Simpson, director of the Family Planning Association in Northern Ireland, said: "Women in Northern Ireland are currently being denied equal access to reproductive healthcare services ... We owe them equal rights to abortion provision and equal access to appropriate, high-quality NHS reproductive healthcare services."