A Northern Ireland schoolgirl whose mother is facing prosecution for buying her abortion pills was taken from a classroom by police officers and spoken to about the alleged crime without her parents being present, a court has heard.
A barrister for the mother outlined the circumstances of the case as she urged judges to rule that her looming prosecution is in contravention of human rights laws.
The woman is taking a judicial review in Belfast High Court against the decision to charge her for procuring online abortion medication for her pregnant 15-year-old child.
The case, known as JR76, represents the latest challenge to Northern Ireland’s restrictive laws on terminations.
Unlike other parts of the UK, the 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland, meaning abortion is illegal except where a woman’s life is at risk or there is a permanent or serious danger to her mental or physical health.
Opening the case, the mother’s barrister Karen Quinlivan QC told a panel of three senior judges, including Northern Ireland’s Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan, that the prosecution could have a “chilling effect” on women seeking help from their GPs.
The GCSE student had gone to her local doctor a week after taking the abortion medication. She was subsequently referred to a mental health counselling service, which in turn informed Social Services. Social Services then alerted the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
The barrister said investigating police officers then arrived at the child’s school and removed her from a classroom to speak to her in the absence of her parents.
“The prosecution will have a chilling effect on access to healthcare in these circumstances,” said Ms Quinlivan.
The barrister told the court the teenage girl was “extremely vulnerable” at the time of her pregnancy, claiming her then ex-boyfriend was “physically and emotionally abusive” toward her.
She said the case centred on a “vulnerable child facing a crisis pregnancy in a jurisdiction which criminalises abortions”.
Ms Quinlivan insisted the mother acted in her daughter’s “best interests”.
The lawyer then quoted from a statement given by the teenager outlining why a toxic relationship with her former boyfriend had influenced her decision to terminate the pregnancy.
“The idea of him being the father to my child and him being in our life in the long term made me physically ill,” the girl said.
The mother, who cannot be named for legal reasons, is facing two counts of procuring and supplying the abortion drugs with the intent to procure a miscarriage, contrary to the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act.
She could face up to five years in prison if convicted.
The woman is taking a judicial review, claiming the decision to prosecute contravenes her human rights. The case is due to be heard over two days.
The mother is supported by Amnesty International and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, which are both interveners in the case.
In the summer, the Commission lost a Supreme Court appeal over the legality of the region’s abortion law.
But a majority of judges said the existing law was incompatible with human rights law in cases of fatal foetal abnormality and sexual crime.
Ahead of the hearing on Tuesday morning, anti-abortion and pro-choice campaigners gathered outside the court with placards and posters.
The mother’s solicitor Jemma Conlon said the woman and her daughter had been forced to “constantly relive a traumatic and private family matter under the weight of this prosecution”.
She added: “This has caused them immense distress and anguish which has been constant over the past five years.”
Bernie Smyth, from anti-abortion group Precious Life, said: “We are here because our laws matter in Northern Ireland.
“We have a law that protects both the mother and the unborn child.
“Our laws must be upheld and we are hopeful that the judge will uphold the laws here in Northern Ireland.”