Northern Ireland’s abortion laws are having a “chilling effect” on anyone considering assisting in a medical termination, the High Court heard yesterday.
Counsel for a Belfast woman challenging the near-blanket ban said the current regime leaves doctors fearing potential life imprisonment.
Sarah Ewart has issued proceedings in a bid to have the current abortion regime declared unlawful.
Five years ago Ms Ewart was forced to travel to England for a termination after being told her unborn child had no chance of survival.
Unlike other parts of the UK, terminations are only legal within Northern Ireland to protect the woman’s life or if there is a risk of serious damage to her well-being.
Earlier this year the Supreme Court concluded that abortion laws in the region in cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality are incompatible with human rights law.
But justices still rejected a challenge by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission because it did not have the necessary legal standing.
Ms Ewart has now brought a case in her own name, as a woman directly affected by the abortion legislation.
She is attempting to judicially review the Secretary of State, the Departments of Health and Justice at Stormont, and the Executive Office.
In court yesterday barrister Adam Straw set out the potential consequences of laws which apply in Northern Ireland.
“The chilling effect is something likely to impact on my client, and doctors deciding whether or not they are going to give a termination,” he said. “(They) are most unlikely to want to run the risk of a life sentence.”
David Scoffield QC, representing the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, insisted it was an issue for the devolved administration at Stormont.
Adjourning the case, Mr Justice McCloskey said he will provide judgment on the application by October 19.