Judgment reserved in landmark abortion challenge in Northern Ireland

Mother of girl who became pregnant at 15 facing a trial and could be jailed for up to five years

Solicitor Jemma Conlon (left), the woman’s lawyer,  and Amnesty International Northern Ireland campaign manager, Grainne Teggart,  outside Belfast High Court on Tuesday.  Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA

Solicitor Jemma Conlon (left), the woman’s lawyer, and Amnesty International Northern Ireland campaign manager, Grainne Teggart, outside Belfast High Court on Tuesday. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA

 

Judgment has been reserved in a landmark legal challenge to a Northern Ireland woman being prosecuted for buying her schoolgirl daughter abortion pills.

Lawyers for the pair, who have both been granted anonymity, claim the decision to pursue charges breaches their human rights.

Following a two-day hearing at the High Court in Belfast, it was confirmed that a ruling will be delivered at a later stage.

Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan said: “We will reserve our decision, but will give it as soon as we can.”

Unlike other parts of the UK, terminations are only legal in Northern Ireland to protect the pregnant female’s life or if there is a risk of serious damage to her well-being.

The mother at the centre of the case is facing a trial and could be jailed for up to five years if ultimately convicted.

In 2013 her daughter, then aged 15, became pregnant during an allegedly physically and verbally abusive relationship. She was feeling vulnerable and unable to travel to England for a termination, so the mother purchased abortion pills online.

She now faces two charges of unlawfully procuring and supplying drugs with intent to procure a miscarriage, contrary to the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act.

The family’s legal team claim compelling the girl to continue with a crisis pregnancy would have breached rights to protection from inhuman and degrading treatment.

Prosecuting her mother for enabling her to access medication to obtain an abortion also violated those entitlements and rights to privacy and family life, it was contended.

Further issues have been raised about the disclosure of information from a GP and child and adolescent mental health services as part of the police investigation and subsequent decision to bring charges.

According to counsel for the Public Prosecution Service (PPS), however, the doctor’s notes contain disputed “hints” of her feeling pressured over taking the medication.

Tony McGleenan QC reiterated the PPS stance that the public interest test had been met for prosecuting over use of the type of medication involved.

Bernie Smyth (centre), founder and director of Precious Life with anti-abortion campaigners outside Belfast High Court on Tuesday. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA
Bernie Smyth (centre), founder and director of Precious Life with anti-abortion campaigners outside Belfast High Court on Tuesday. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA

A key question, the barrister argued, centred on whether the girl was beyond the 10-week mark in her pregnancy when the pills were sought.

The relevant protocol was filled in by her mother when it should have been completed by her, the court was told.

“Only she can answer the key and critical question about her gestation period,” Mr McGleenan insisted.

He continued: “In this case the critical questions are: is the medication appropriate, and is your pregnancy under 10 weeks?

“The information here is very sketchy about that; we don’t have definitive dates.”

Attorney general John Larkin QC argued that the case amounted to a “collateral” challenge to the ongoing criminal proceedings.

He said: “The challenge is not merely to the decision to prosecute, it’s also in some way founded on the supposed legality of the provisions that are being enforced by the PPS.”

Mr Larkin told the court an attempt to change Northern Ireland’s abortion regime had been “comprehensively rejected” by the Stormont Assembly in February 2016.

“The law in Northern Ireland is that both lives matter,” he added.

“It seeks to protect both the mother and child, and I invite this court to continue to uphold it.”

Earlier in the case it had been claimed that the teenage girl was removed from a classroom and spoken to by police about the abortion pills purchase without her parents’ knowledge.

But a lawyer for the PSNI responded that the officer involved was focused only on her state of well-being, and never intended to question her.