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Woman prosecuted over abortion pills appeals in Northern Ireland court

A court in Northern Ireland will hear a landmark abortion case Thursday as a woman appeals the decision to p...

Posted: Sep 20, 2018 1:52 PM
Updated: Sep 20, 2018 1:52 PM

A court in Northern Ireland will hear a landmark abortion case Thursday as a woman appeals the decision to prosecute her for buying abortion pills for her 15-year-old daughter in 2013.

The woman, who is not being named to protect her daughter's anonymity, has been accused of buying the pills online and giving them to the teen, criminal actions under Northern Ireland law.

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According to Amnesty International, this is the first time a prosecution relating to the country's abortion laws is being challenged. If the woman's appeal is unsuccessful, she would face a criminal trial and up to five years in jail, Amnesty said.

Abortion is illegal in Northern Ireland except in cases where the life or health of the mother is at risk. The 1967 Abortion Act, which made abortion broadly legal in the rest of the UK, has never been extended to Northern Ireland, where a law created in 1861 is still in force. Abortion in cases of rape, incest and fatal fetal abnormality remains illegal.

In a statement from Amnesty, the woman at the center of Thursday's hearing said she had endured "five years of agony" since first facing the prospect of prosecution. It is "there at every important moment of my and my children's lives -- just hanging over me," she said. "The fear and the pain of it all."

'This mother is not a criminal'

Campaigners are hopeful that recent events in the Irish republic -- where the President this week officially repealed a constitutional amendment that banned abortion in the wake of a resounding referendum vote in favor of changing the law -- could spark change north of the border.

In June, the UK Supreme Court narrowly ruled that current abortion legislation in Northern Ireland is "incompatible" with the European Convention on Human Rights. But decisions on abortion law are the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Assembly, which has been suspended since January 2017.

Grainne Teggart, Amnesty's Northern Ireland campaign manager, described the accusations against the woman as "devastating" and urged the judges to see the charges as "unfair cruelty."

"This mother is not a criminal. Her daughter is not a criminal. Women who want to access abortions in Northern Ireland are not criminals," Teggart said.

The judges "now have the power to not only give this woman her life back, but to give hope to all women and girls living in Northern Ireland."

Speaking Thursday, Teggart also welcomed an announcement that the Women and Equalities Committee at Westminster has launched an inquiry looking into abortion law in Northern Ireland, describing it as "a welcome opportunity for change" and a chance to shine a spotlight on "the UK government's obligations to women in Northern Ireland."

Bernadette Smyth, director of Precious Life, an anti-abortion campaign group based in Northern Ireland, defended the current laws in a statement released ahead of the hearing.

"We will be outside the High Court to highlight the importance of our pro-life laws that protect both the mother and her unborn child," she said.

Abortion pills approved by WHO

The abortion pills used to terminate the girl's pregnancy -- mifepristone and misoprostol -- are approved by the World Health Organization, which includes them on its list of essential medicines, noting that they can be used "where permitted under national law and where culturally acceptable" and that their use requires medical supervision.

The pills are an approved method of terminating a pregnancy under the UK's National Health Service. Thousands of women from Ireland travel to the UK each year to seek legal abortions.

A study carried out by the University of Texas and published in the British Medical Journal last year found that mifepristone and misoprostol were both effective and safe in the vast majority of cases.

Of 1,000 women in Ireland who had used the drugs to end a pregnancy, only 50 reported any medical complications.

Abortion-rights campaigners have long called for the purchase and use of the pills to be legalized. In May, just days after Ireland voted to repeal the abortion ban, activists gathered outside the court in Belfast and took what they said were abortion pills in protest at Northern Ireland's strict laws.

Counter-protesters from Precious Life were also present outside the court in May to defend the current legislation.

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