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5 December 2013

Northern Ireland: Justice Minister to consult on abortion laws

David Ford has said he is going to consult on changing abortion laws to allow women carrying babies with fatal fetal abnormalities to have a termination.

Other grounds - like abortion in rape or incest cases - are also expected to be covered, BBC News Online reports.

David Ford said he hoped to put out a consultation document for the “potential for change” by next Easter. He said he anticipated it would only apply to a narrow range of cases.

Fatal fetal abnormality is currently not a ground for abortion under NI law.

David Ford told BBC Radio Ulster’s Nolan Show he would review the legislation after two women told their stories earlier this year. Both women discovered their babies had anencephaly, a severe brain abnormality and would not survive outside the womb.

Sarah Ewart contacted the BBC’s Nolan Show in October to highlight her experience. She travelled to England for a termination after discovering her baby would not survive outside the womb. Another woman, Laura, who was pregnant with twins, also got in touch with the programme to say she was facing the same situation.

The laws covering abortion in Northern Ireland are the 1861 Offences against the Person Act, and the Criminal Justice act from 1945. It is a criminal offence, which carries a life sentence. The only exceptions are to save a woman’s life, or if there is a risk of permanent and serious damage to her mental or physical health.

Last year official figures confirmed that at least 40 terminations a year are carried out on these grounds.

More than 1,000 women a year who do not fit in these categories travel from Northern Ireland each year to have an abortion in other parts of the UK.

In England, Wales and Scotland access to abortion is covered by the 1967 Abortion Act. That permits terminations up to 24 weeks of pregnancy on grounds that include risk to the physical or mental health of the woman or existing children in the family, and abnormalities that could lead to a child being “seriously handicapped”.

It is also allowed over 24 weeks if a woman’s life or health is at serious risk, and for serious disabilities.

Abortion: Justice Minister David Ford to consult on changing NI’s laws. BBC News Online, 5 December 2013

Also read:

Northern Ireland: Fetal anomaly case turns attention on abortion guidelines. Reproductive Review, 18 October 2013