Women take legal action to overturn Ulster ban on abortions

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TWENTY-SIX women have begun a historic legal battle to force the Government to extend abortion rights to Northern Ireland. The women hope to win a court ruling that will end back-street abortions in Ulster, where it is still illegal to terminate a pregnancy.

The legal challenge follows a letter written by the former Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam to pro-abortion campaigners in which she stated that the Government was not prepared to extend the 1967 Abortion Act to the Province.

The Act grants full abortion rights to women in only England, Scotland and Wales. It has not been introduced in Northern Ireland because of the alleged strength of Roman Catholic objection to legal termination of pregnancy.

Under Ulster law, dating back to 1928, it is, in certain circumstances, a criminal offence to perform an abortion in Northern Ireland. This, claims Alliance for Choice, the group representing the 26, means that each week 40 women have to travel to the mainland for abortions. Others have to risk prosecution by going to back- street clinics.

A judicial review of Ms Mowlam's decision not to extend the 1967 legislation will be heard in the High Court in Belfast. The case has been prepared by the Alliance's team of legal academics and is being considered by the Northern Ireland Commission on Human Rights, which may decide to take the case on.

Although the group has had no trouble finding 26 women of "childbearing age" to be named in the test case, two firms of solicitors have pulled out. The case is extremely sensitive and, in the past, women who have campaigned for abortion rights have been attacked.

In a letter dated 29 September, written by Ms Mowlam to the women, the minister said the Government would not change the law unless there was "broad support from a cross-section of people from Northern Ireland".

Anne Hamilton, the Alliance's chairwoman, said the abortion law was a direct breach of Article 2, the right to life, of the European Convention on Human Rights. "The absence of abortion rights in this jurisdiction places women of childbearing age at risk." She also said the fact that women in Northern Ireland had to travel to the mainland for abortions meant that their pregnancies were terminated at a later stage.

The legal action is expected to put pressure on the recently appointed Northern Ireland Secretary, Peter Mandelson, who has not made clear his position on abortion law.

"It doesn't have to come to an embarrassing legal battle for a Labour Government, which professes to be pro-choice. The case for extending the same rights that British women enjoy to women in Northern Ireland is overwhelming," Ms Hamilton said.