Much of the debate surrounding the determination by Mr Justice Horner will quite understandably and rightly focus on the rights and wrongs of terminations in relation to fatal foetal abnormality and victims of sexual violence.
I acknowledge that the issues Mr Justice Horner has ruled upon are some of the most controversial and difficult for any democratic institution or society to deal with. Yet other democracies and societies have dealt with them. Northern Ireland, however, is different. Issues relating to the law on terminations of a pregnancy and associated guidance have been staring the N. Ireland political establishment in the face for years.
The response by Minister Poots to the withdrawal of the previous guidelines in 2010 – who consulted upon but did not publish new guidelines – understandably created a further decision making vacuum amongst health professionals in relation to fatal foetal abnormality and other issues. The outworking of which was the heart breaking case of Sarah Ewart who had to travel to England – without statutory support there, or on her return – to have a termination. She was not the only case.
The extensive publicity this case attracted prompted the minister for justice to act. He published a consultation on proposed changes to the law. Those proposals have become stuck in the executive.
The circulation of new guidance by the health minister to his executive colleagues is a direct result of this determination; I am in no doubt the minister would have sat on this indefinitely without the ruling.
Confusion and uncertainty remains for women, families and medical professionals across NI. It is still unclear whether the executive will allow the minister for justice to bring forward legislation on this issue and whether the health minister’s guidance will make it out of the executive and if it does, what impact it will have on Mr Justice Horner’s ruling.
The worst thing a government can be is perpetually indecisive. A responsibility vacuum places members of the public in no man’s land – no certainty and nowhere to go for support and advice. Sarah Ewart, health professionals and others are victims of NI’s governance crisis and unless the issue is resolved this situation will continue.