The struggle over abortion reform will continue in the courts and outside the Assembly

The UK national papers have shown more interest in the case of a mother who  obtained abortion pills for her 15 year old daughter than the latest twists and turn of the RHI affair. No doubt this is because even abortion issues are more readily  understandable than RHI and they have points of comparison  to make with the permissive English regime which in their views show up Northern Ireland  once again as a reactionary backwater.  Full reports appeared in the Independent and the Guardian, ( although  I  regret the lack of follow-ups on the Hart report into child abuse which if it had been about abuse in England with similar hints of prominent names and MI5 involvement, would have been  widely covered even in a week like this one).

I look forward to an informed commentary on the decision but it seems to amount to further pressure on the Assembly – if it still exists – to change the law or at least for prosecutions to be halted.

However the outlook is poor. Michelle O’Neill  the new Sinn Fein Assembly leader and outgoing Health Minister says she would have supported reform  but now can’t because of the Assembly collapse ( you could help solve that one, Michelle). But the DUP’s Jim Wells has boasted that  an anti-abortion peitition  with “300,000 signatures” is ” the largest ever.”

So with the DUP and the Attorney General as opponents,  legal change  may remain unlikely, in spite of  polling showing  3/4 in favour.

From the Guardian report

The girl found out she was pregnant in the summer of 2013, after a relationship with a boy a year older than her and who she said was physically abusive. In written evidence submitted to the court, her lawyers said he threatened to kick the baby out of her, and to stab it if it was born.

Her mother was concerned about her emotional wellbeing and took her to the GP, where they spoke about taking the pills. A medical examination showed no ill-effects, and a referral was made for counselling.

Two months later a doctor at the medical centre (it is not clear from the court papers if it was the same doctor or another) told police that the girl had taken the pills. Neither the girl nor her mother were consulted about her private medical records being handed to the police, according to the court papers

The Times (£) gave the immediate background last November

 A mother is one of three women who have appeared before courts in Northern Ireland this year on charges relating to the pills.

A 21-year-old woman was given a three-month suspended sentence in April for taking the pills. The woman, who was reported to the police by her housemates, had been trying to save up to pay for flights and a termination in England.

The third case is understood to have involved a couple. In the cases of both the couple and the Belfast mother it is understood that the women were arrested shortly after they sought medical help.

A crowd funding appeal for legal fees of £30,000 was launched last November

From the Belfast Telegraph report  

Philip Henry, for the PPS, countered that the legal challenge should be dismissed due to delay – the decision to prosecute was taken more than a year ago.

Contesting the strength of the grounds of challenge, he added: “There’s simply no prospect of establishing inhuman treatment.”

However, Lord Justice Weatherup, sitting with Mrs Justice Keegan, ruled that an arguable case had been established.

Granting leave to apply for judicial review, he listed a full hearing in May.

The judges also gave intervener status to four organisations: the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, the Family Planning Association, the Royal College of Midwives, and the British Humanist Association.

Counsel for those bodies can now make representations to assist in the case.

Outside court their solicitor, Ciaran Moynagh, said: “This is a proper case for leave to be granted as there are significant issues dealing with the rights of the child, privacy and medical grounds, along with the moral issue of abortion in Northern Ireland.”

Later, a lawyer representing the mother and daughter said the case involved important issues about the rights of women and children in Northern Ireland.

Stressing the public interest in mounting the challenge, Jemma Conlon of Stephen Chambers Solicitors said: “We are asking the court to take the view that it was highly inappropriate to prosecute our client in these circumstances and potentially criminalise her for behaviour that would be lawful, for example, in England.

“We are hopeful that the court might ultimately determine that it was contrary to Article 3 and Article 8 human rights of both mother and daughter for this prosecution to continue.”

Ms Conlon added: “There are also important ancillary issues that the court may determine which concern the propriety of accessing their medical records without their consent.”

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  • hgreen

    As well as highlighting again our disgraceful anti female laws here in N.I. this case also exposes some worrying data protection issues.

  • Korhomme

    As I understand it, the law requires a medical practitioner in N Ireland to report when there is a suspicion of an abortion. Medical confidentiality is not absolute, and hasn’t been for a long time. Medics are also required to report injuries related to terrorism — though in my experience such people were invariably accompanied by the police.

    However, I understand from the press reports that the medical records of the child were given to the police without permission being sought. If correct, this is a sinister development, and one that should be strenuously resisted.

  • Korhomme

    The US is undergoing efforts to prevent abortion both there and abroad (through defunding agencies that provide or advise on such services amongst others).

    Such efforts to eradicate abortion can only have sad consequences. Making abortion illegal, or defunding such legal provision, only stops legal abortion. Legal abortions, provided in recognised institutions, are safe. Making abortion illegal does not reduce the demand; rather, women will turn to illegal provision. It has always been thus. Illegal surgical abortions are dangerous. It’s clear that women will die as a consequence of denying legal and safe abortion — estimates suggest perhaps 20,000 in those countries where US funding is withdrawn.

    Is this really what ‘pro-life’ campaigners want?

    Far better would be comprehensive sex and relationship education in schools.

  • Backbencher

    Would you ever pause and listen to yourself
    “It’s clear that women will die as a consequence of denying legal and safe abortion”
    so your alternative is – kill the helpless child instead.

    What Pro-life campaigners want is for people to stop seeing abortion as an option, you can do your bit by ceasing to promote it.

  • Backbencher

    Are you suggesting that a medical practitioner should withhold evidence relating to a suspected crime?

  • hgreen

    Access to medical records should only be given following patient concent (which didn’t happen in this case). If the doctor informs the police about a possible abortion without medical records it’s his/her word against the patient’s.

    Would you want your employer or insurance company having access to your medical records? This case is a clear breach of patient confidentiality.

  • Korhomme

    Abortion is much safer than pregnancy. Do you not agree?

    Why must abortion remain a criminal offence? Were abortion legalised, there would be no compulsion, no requirement for a woman to have one.

    In the case above, there is one child and one foetus.

  • Backbencher

    “Abortion is much safer than pregnancy. Do you not agree?” No I do not agree, pregnancy in the vast majority of cases results in new life, abortion always results in the ending of at least one life.

    “In the case above, there is one child and one foetus”
    and two lives, one of which you are willing to extinguish.

    Out of interest (and given you comment about a fetus) at what point in a pregnancy do you believe an abortion becomes wrong?

  • Backbencher

    No I would not want my employer or insurance company having access to my medical records but that is not remotely close to the issue here.

    The issue here is should evidence of a crime ever be withheld from the police, the evidence in this case happens to be medical records.

    I think the answer is clear.

  • Korhomme

    By safer, I meant in terms of maternal mortality.

    If you think that all abortion is wrong, then it can never be acceptable; if you think that there are circumstances in which it can be justified, then that time depends on the circumstances.

    I don’t think we will change each others minds and opinions.

    I would like to know, however, why abortion should/must be criminalised.

  • hgreen

    The answer is not clear. According to bma guidelines the police need a court order or warrant to access records unless written permission is given by the patient. That did not happen in this case.

    Seems like you are just making stuff up without any knowledge of the legal requirements. Like many pro lifers you are happy to trample all over civil liberties in defence of your misguided religious beliefs.

  • Scots Anorak

    Human rights concerns in Northern Ireland owe their media profile to their ability to get popular coalitions behind them. So it is that equal marriage, a largely symbolic issue, moves up the agenda, while more pressing but also more controversial abortion and Irish-language rights remain the poor relations. They will all be recognised some day, though.