North’s abortion laws challenged in Belfast High Court

Sarah Ewart endured trauma and humiliation of travelling to England, lawyer says

Sarah Ewart, who travelled to England for a termination after she was told her baby’s brain and skull had not developed properly. Photograph: Simon Dawson/Getty Images

Sarah Ewart, who travelled to England for a termination after she was told her baby’s brain and skull had not developed properly. Photograph: Simon Dawson/Getty Images

 

A woman denied a lawful abortion in Northern Ireland endured the trauma and humiliation of travelling to England for the procedure she likened to “a conveyor belt”, the High Court in Belfast has heard.

Counsel for Sarah Ewart argued that she had to go through a devastating experience to secure the termination of an unborn child with no chance of survival.

Ms Ewart (28), from Belfast, is challenging the prohibition on abortions in Northern Ireland in cases of fatal foetal abnormality (FFA).

She claims the near-blanket ban violates her human rights.

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

Last year a majority of Supreme Court judges held that the North’s abortion laws breach the UK’s human rights obligations. But they still rejected the case mounted by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission because it did not have the necessary legal standing.

Ms Ewart has now brought a challenge in her own name, as a woman directly affected by the current strict regime.

Opening the case before Mrs Justice Keegan, her lawyers relied heavily on the Supreme Court’s findings.

Persuasive

Barrister Adam Straw contended the majority decision reached that the law is incompatible with Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights in FFA cases is “highly persuasive”.

Turning to the impact of the law on his client, he argued that her affidavit demonstrated the serious adverse consequences.

“She describes her shock and horror at discovering that her foetus... had no skull or developed brain,” Mr Straw said.

Mrs Ewart was at risk of infection if her unborn child died during pregnancy, but was still not eligible for an abortion under existing laws.

Counsel claimed she was denied support and information because of the fear among health professionals that they could face prosecution.

Instead, Ms Ewart travelled to a clinic in England in 2013 where the procedure was carried out.

“She found it traumatic and undignified, like a conveyor belt, leaving her feeling vulnerable and humiliated,” Mr Straw continued. “She said the whole process was devastating.”

It was claimed that Mrs Ewart was also given no information about whether she could obtain an autopsy.

Her application for judicial review is being directed against the Department of Justice and the Department of Health at Stormont.

Moral values

Attorney General John Larkin QC is also set to make submissions during the two-day hearing.

The court heard only 13 lawful abortions were permitted in Northern Ireland last year, while 861 women travelled to England and Wales for terminations.

Mr Straw argued that the rights of the individual pregnant woman outweighs competing rights of the community.

He said there was substantial evidence the prohibition on abortion in cases of FFA, rape and incest causes serious trauma to the mother and puts them at risk of serious harm.

However, it was contended that no substantial, legitimate community interest exists in protecting a foetus incapable of independent life.

“In FFA cases that’s simply not significant enough to outweigh the interests of the woman on the other side of the balance,” the barrister insisted.

The protection of morals can be given no significant weight either, according to Mr Straw.

He added: “There’s no evidence that the profound moral values of the majority of the population of Northern Ireland wants abortion to be prohibited in FFA cases.”

The hearing continues.