Belfast woman tells court of traumatic experience seeking abortion
A court in Belfast has heard of one woman’s traumatic experience of seeking an abortion after receiving a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality.
Sarah Ewart, 28, who was refused a termination in Northern Ireland in 2013 due to strict laws, was harangued by anti-abortion protesters and felt like “part of a conveyor belt” when she travelled to a London clinic to end her pregnancy, Belfast High Court heard.
She has also contended that she was refused advice on how to seek a termination, and that her medical records were not sent to the clinic.
She described the experience as leaving her feeling “vulnerable and humiliated”.
Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that Northern Ireland’s abortion laws were in breach of human rights laws.
However, they concluded that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission – which brought the case – did not have the power to bring the proceedings as it was not itself a “victim” of any unlawful act.
Now Ms Ewart has brought a fresh legal challenge before the court.
The case is being heard by Mrs Justice Siobhan Keegan and is expected to conclude on Thursday.
There are two respondents in the case: Northern Ireland’s Department of Justice and Department of Health.
Northern Ireland’s Attorney General John Larkin is representing himself in the proceedings.
Barrister Adam Straw, acting for Ms Ewart, argued that the law in Northern Ireland which prohibits abortion in fatal foetal abnormality cases is incompatible with human rights legislation.
“I respectfully invite this court to follow the lead of the Supreme Court,” he said.
Mr Straw outlined that there is “compelling evidence of serious impact” on women who carry a pregnancy with fatal foetal abnormalities to full term.
He referred to evidence given to the Supreme Court by Professor James Dornan, director of foetal medicine at the Royal Jubilee Maternity Service in Belfast, that there is a risk of sepsis to the mother and also “significant risks” to the mental health of a woman continuing a pregnancy knowing that the foetus could die at any moment.
Mr Straw also referred to Ms Ewart’s personal experiences of seeking a termination after learning her pregnancy had fatal foetal abnormalities.
He contended that the respondents, NI’s Department of Justice and Department of Health, and the Executive Committee “failed to amend the 1945 act” – the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) which makes carrying out an abortion an illegal act.
An application to add the Executive Committee as a respondent was not successful.
Dr Tony McGlennan QC, acting for the two departments, argued they did all they could when it came to the question of new abortion legislation.
He outlined how following an NI Assembly debate in February 2016, a working group on fatal foetal abnormalities was set up to examine the matter.
The working group compiled a report, published internally within government in October 2016, which recommended a change in the law.
He said the next step would have been the production of a common paper for the first and deputy first ministers.
“Because of the political hiatus in 2017, these steps were never taken,” he said.
He added: “It has to be recognised we do not have a functioning legislature.”
A fatal foetal abnormality (FFA) diagnosis means doctors believe an unborn child will die either in the womb or shortly after birth.
It is not grounds for a legal abortion in Northern Ireland. The procedure is allowed if the mother’s life is in danger.
Both pro-choice and anti-abortion campaigners gathered outside the High Court on Wednesday morning ahead of the hearing with placards and banners.
Some supporting Ms Ewart said “Now it is time for Women in Northern Ireland” – a reference to recent reforms in the Republic.
Those who favoured the status quo carried signs which said “Life is a right, not a privilege”.
Others said judges and politicians had a responsibility to protect that right.
Ms Ewart described the experience of returning to court as “really nerve-wracking”, but added: “I am really hopeful that the High Court listens to what the Supreme Court has previously said – that women here who find themselves in the circumstances that I found myself in will get the help and the treatment that we need in our hospitals with our own medical teams.”
Ms Ewart is being supported by Amnesty International, one of five intervenors in the case.
The others are the Human Rights Commission, Humanists UK, Centre for Reproductive Rights and Precious Life.
Bernie Smyth, from anti-abortion group Precious Life, said: “We are saying this is barbaric, it is wrong and it should never be introduced here in Northern Ireland.”
Amnesty campaigns manager Grainne Teggart said Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley should have moved to change the law before now.