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Medics fear life imprisonment over restrictive NI abortion laws, court hears

File photo dated 15/06/16 of traffic crossing the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland in the village of Bridgend, Co Donegal. Photo by Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Northern Ireland's restrictive abortion laws have left medics fearing life imprisonment, a court in Belfast heard last week.

They have had a chilling effect on doctors, a lawyer for a woman forced to travel to England for a termination for a fatal foetal abnormality said.

Sarah Ewart is applying for a judicial review, seeking a declaration that Northern Ireland's regime is incompatible with human rights law in instances where the unborn baby is unable to survive. The case was adjourned.

Her barrister, Adam Straw, said: "The chilling effect which results from that offence is something which is likely to impact on my client.”

"Doctors are most unlikely to want to run the risk of a life sentence if they are convicted of an offence."

Five years ago, Ms Ewart travelled from Northern Ireland for a termination in England after a 20-week scan revealed her baby had anencephaly, which meant the brain and skull had not developed and the infant would either die before being born or shortly afterwards.

Abortions in Northern Ireland are illegal in all but exceptional medical and mental health circumstances.

Last Friday afternoon, Ms Ewart sought the leave of the High Court in Belfast to take her case against the Government to full judicial review.

Judge Mr Justice Bernard McCloskey urged Ms Ewart's lawyers to provide greater clarity around what kind of legal remedy they are seeking and from which part of the Government.

He said: "The court could not have done more to progress these proceedings and, further, no fault can be attributed to any of the proposed respondents."

The judge added: "The court is still not sufficiently equipped to rule on that fundamental issue at this stage."

The four proposed respondents in the case are Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley, Stormont's departments of justice and health and the Executive.

The UK Government has resisted calls to step in to legislate for reform in the wake of a recent Supreme Court judgment that found the current legal framework incompatible with human rights laws.

In June, a majority of Supreme Court judges said the ban on terminations in cases of rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality needed "radical reconsideration".

However, the Supreme Court dismissed the legal challenge by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission by a narrow majority, and said it had no jurisdiction to consider the case because there was no actual or potential victim of an unlawful act involved in it. (PA)

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