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.
On Thursday night, a DUP spokesman said the party would examine the Department of Justice proposals and respond to the consultation, adding that “the DUP is a pro-life party” and that “everyone should approach this issue with sensitivity and compassion”.
NI21 leader Basil McCrea MLA said Mr Ford’s consultation plan was “too slow and in danger of failure” because of the difficulties in finding Executive agreement.