As readers will recall, the Abortion Act 1967 does not apply in the Province; instead, termination of pregnancy is regulated by a combination of ss 58 and 59 Offences Against the Person Act 1861, subject to s 25 Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1945 (which extended to Northern Ireland the provisions of the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929) and the relevant case-law, some of which is English. The only permissible grounds for termination of pregnancy are where it is necessary to save a woman’s life or where continued pregnancy risks permanent and serious damage to her mental or physical health. According to the BBC, official figures confirmed that at least 40 terminations a year were carried out on those grounds.
Hard on the heels of the publication of the latest UK statistics for termination of pregnancy there now comes the long-awaited announcement that the Northern Ireland Executive is to consult on a very limited proposal to relax its laws on abortion: in cases of lethal foetal abnormality and where a pregnancy is the result of rape or incest. The consultation follows the decision by Northern Ireland’s Department of Health last year that the issue of abortion for cases of lethal foetal abnormality could not be addressed by current abortion guidelines.
Justice Minister David Ford MLA, of the Alliance Party, said he was making a “strong recommendation” for legislation to allow an abortion in circumstances where there is no prospect of the foetus being delivered and having a viable life; however, he has refrained from making any recommendation on the issue of termination of pregnancy resulting from rape or incest.
The issue of abortion in cases of foetal abnormality was highlighted in 2013 by the sad case of Sarah Ewart, whose foetus was diagnosed with anencephaly, a condition where the brain does not develop. She was told she would have to carry the baby to full term: instead, she had a termination in England. As we explained in the earlier post, there was also a partly-successful legal challenge to the Department of Health guidelines.
There has obviously been some considerable reluctance to go ahead with the consultation at all. Our post Reforming abortion law in Northern Ireland? reviewed the situation following David Ford’s announcement on 8 December that he hoped to issue a consultation on the “potential for change” of the law by Easter 2014, though he anticipated even then that it would apply only to a narrow range of cases. That the consultation has been launched a good six months later than he intended gives rise to a strong suspicion that there has been quite a lot of inter-party argument (and arm-twisting) even to get this far. And given the parties’ stances on the issue (with the exception of Alliance and the somewhat equivocal position of Sinn Féin), even if the consultation turns out to be in favour and legislation is introduced will it ever get on to the Northern Ireland statute book?
In Dublin last year the Oireachtas passed the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013, signed into law by President Higgins on 30 July: a very limited measure providing for termination in cases where there is the risk of loss of life from physical illness, from physical illness in an emergency or from suicide – but it does not provide directly for the termination of pregnancy as a result of rape or incest. It looks as if any reform in Northern Ireland may be slightly different but equally limited.