Northern Ireland’s strict abortion laws could be changed to make it easier for women carrying babies with fatal foetal abnormalities to access a termination.
Justice Minister David Ford is to consult on proposals to adjust the legislation which currently outlaws abortion except when the life of the mother is at risk.
The move, which has sparked outrage among pro-life campaigners, comes after two high profile cases where pregnant women whose babies had no chance of survival were forced to travel to England for an abortion.
In a statement issued through the Department of Justice, it was claimed the minister recognised the difficult situations facing some women.
The statement said: “David Ford believes there is a question whether, in certain difficult but closely-defined cases, the law’s line has been drawn in the right place. The consultation will therefore focus on cases of terminal foetal abnormality.”
Mr Ford said he was not seeking a fundamental change in the law or an extension of the 1967 Abortion Act which does not apply in Northern Ireland. He said he anticipated it would only apply to a narrow range of cases.
“The Department is keen to be as specific as possible about the changes it will propose, but defining them in terms the law can apply throws up complex issues that will require time to address,” the statement added.
Mr Ford aims to bring a draft consultation document to the Stormont justice committee no later than March next year.
But, any change in the law will have to receive cross-party support at the Executive and the approval of the Assembly.
Fatal foetal abnormality is not grounds for a legal abortion in Northern Ireland.
The issue gained prominence in October after Sarah Ewart went public about how she was forced to travel to London for a termination after her baby was diagnosed with anencephaly, a severe brain anomaly which meant the skull had not developed properly.
Another woman, known only as Laura, who was 22 weeks pregnant with twins suffering from the same fatal condition, also spoke out about being told she would have to fly to England for an abortion.
Northern Ireland is not covered by the 1967 Abortion Act and every year more than 1,000 women travel from the region to clinics in England, Scotland and Wales where access to an abortion is allowed up to 24 weeks into pregnancy on grounds that include abnormalities which could lead to a child being seriously disabled.
Anti-abortionists have vowed to challenge changes to the law which they claimed could lead to an increasing number of children being aborted.
Bernadette Smyth from the Precious Life Group said: “I am outraged that there is going to be a consultation in Northern Ireland on whether some children will live and whether some will die.
“I do believe this will open the floodgates. This is not care, this is killing.”
Pro-choice groups have welcomed the minister’s statement.
Audrey Simpson, director of the Family Planning Association said: “We hear from women on an almost weekly basis who find themselves in a similar situation, as well as those who have become pregnant as a result of rape and incest.
“It is time that the Northern Ireland Assembly looked at these cases and introduced appropriate legislation.”
The Health Minister has also said he would issue revised guidance after doctors and midwives faced with the prospect of prosecution raised concerns about a culture of fear on maternity wards,
Ulster Unionist Leader, Mike Nesbitt MLA welcomed news of the consultation on abortion law in respect of fatal foetal abnormality.
“Abortion is a matter of conscience for our members, so I speak in a personal capacity when I welcome this move,” he said. “It is time society recognised we have already moved away from the absolutist position of being either 100% Pro Life or Pro Choice, as we already permit abortion where there is a medically assessed risk to the mother.
“I hope women’s voices are loudest in this consultation; as they carry the child, bear the physical pain and the brunt of the mental anguish.”
Mr Nesbitt added that “personally, I do not wish to tell a woman carrying a foetus with a fatal abnormality, who has made an informed choice to abort, that she has to travel elsewhere to get her wish”.
“That is not the sort of Northern Ireland I want to build,” he added. “I shall support choice for mothers who are faced with fatal foetal abnormality, and in cases of rape and incest. This is not opening the floodgates. It is recognising we can no longer look at the issue of abortion in binary terms, where it is either black or white.
“I respect the view of those who believe the life of a child should be cherished, be the span of that life measured in hours, minutes or even seconds. I do not deny those mothers the right to go full-term, but equally I respect those who have thought the issues through and opted for abortion in those circumstances.”