Legal bid to reveal Executive abortion guidelines

Health Minister Simon Hamilton has just circulated a document on abortion to the Stormont Executive
Health Minister Simon Hamilton has just circulated a document on abortion to the Stormont Executive

A Co Antrim woman twice forced to terminate pregnancies is to seek access to draft new guidelines on abortion in Northern Ireland, the High Court has heard.

Her lawyer said she wants the document Health Minister Simon Hamilton has just circulated among his Executive colleagues disclosed to her.

The woman is taking legal action over an alleged continued failure to issue the revised guidance to medical professionals.

She claims it has compounded the trauma of losing her babies.

Earlier this week a High Court judge ruled that abortion legislation in Northern Ireland is in breach of human rights law.

Terminations are currently only allowed within the Province if the mother’s life or mental well-being are considered at risk.

But a landmark judicial review found the failure to provide exceptions to the ban for pregnant women in cases of fatal foetal abnormality or resulting from a sex crime breached their rights to private and family life.

Separate litigation has been brought by a woman who had to undergo two separate abortions.

In a challenge to the department, she claims there is a legitimate expectation that the guidelines would be published in final form.

With the draft document now before the Stormont cabinet, her lawyer Peter Bowles told the court: “To date we haven’t seen it. There will be a request to see it.”

In 2013 the woman, granted anonymity in the case, had to travel to a clinic in England to terminate twins with fatal foetal abnormalities.

Staff at a Belfast hospital believed they were unable to carry out the abortion due to uncertainty around the law, according to papers in the case.

Earlier this year, after proceedings were commenced, she again discovered that a second pregnancy was also non-viable.

On that occasion, however, she was able to have an abortion at another hospital in Belfast.

Consultants decided that continuing with the pregnancy could have serious consequences for her mental health.

Her legal action represents the latest stage in litigation surrounding the issue stretching back more than a decade.

A previous case brought by the Family Planning Association resulted in the department publishing the first guidance for health professionals in 2009.

But a judge later ruled it did not properly cover areas of counselling and conscientious objection.

The guidelines were held to be misleading and had to be withdrawn for reconsideration.

In 2013 it was announced that a new draft was to go before the Stormont Executive and then out to public consultation.

Responding in the latest challenge, Paul McLaughlin, for the department, said: “I can’t give any assurance or commitment as to how the department or the Executive would respond to the request for disclosure of guidelines which are currently before them for consideration.

“There have also been recent events in the area. One doesn’t know how the Executive will react to that.”

The case was adjourned to later in the month.