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Northern Ireland women lose appeal against abortion ruling

A teenage girl and her mother, who live in Northern Ireland, have lost their case at the Court of Appeal against the Health Secretary’s policy of not letting women who travel from Northern Ireland to England and Wales have abortions on the NHS.

Abortion is only allowed in very restricted circumstances in Northern Ireland, unlike the rest of the U.K. where every woman is entitled to an abortion on the NHS in the first 24 weeks of pregnancy, provided two doctors “agree that an abortion would cause less damage to a woman’s physical or mental health than continuing with the pregnancy.”

Abortion is actually legal in Northern Ireland but, according to The Family Planning Association, 95 percent of women who need an abortion are prevented from having one. It’s because the law is so vague: abortion is available in “exceptional circumstances” but these aren’t defined in the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act and don’t include rape, incest or foetal abnormality.

What is clear is that over 1,000 women travel from Northern Ireland to England every year, paying up to £2,000 each for a private abortion. If a woman can’t afford this she may be tempted to buy dangerous, illegal abortion pills online or else she is forced to continue with a pregnancy she is unable to cope with.

More: Three mums on why they don’t regret terminating a pregnancy

Last year it was ruled that women from Northern Ireland are not legally entitled to free abortions on the NHS in England. The case was brought by the girl, who can’t be named for legal reasons. She travelled to England with her mother to have an abortion after falling pregnant in October 2012 at the age of 15.

The presiding judge, Mr. Justice King, ruled that Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s duty to promote a comprehensive health service in England “is a duty in relation to the physical and mental health of the people of England” and that duty did not extend “to persons who are ordinarily resident in Northern Ireland,” even though they are U.K. citizens, reported the BBC.

Mr. Justice King also ruled that the girl had no right under Article 8 (right to privacy and family life) of the European Convention on Human Rights to a state-funded abortion and that there was no breach of anti-discrimination laws under Article 14.

The Court of Appeal ruled that devolutionary powers must be taken into consideration and that there was no case of discrimination because Northern Ireland is not covered by the 1967 Abortion Act, which applies in the rest of the U.K.

Despite the ruling the women have vowed to carry on fighting with their solicitor Angela Jackman, a partner at law firm Simpson Millar, stating that they would be seeking to take the “landmark” case to the Supreme Court and, if necessary, would apply to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg in the light of “favourable rulings” made today on human rights issues.

“The ruling and the policy of the U.K. Health Secretary only adds to the barriers women in Northern Ireland face when trying to access abortion services,” Amnesty Interational’s campaign manager Grainne Teggart told the Belfast Telegraph. “Up to 2,000 women per year leave Northern Ireland to access abortion services because of our highly restrictive laws and because no pathway into the NHS exists as the Department of Health is yet to publish termination of pregnancy guidance.

“Northern Ireland’s highly restrictive abortion laws are in significant breach of the U.K.’s international human rights obligations and force women pregnant as a result of rape and incest and whose pregnancies have been given a fatal foetal diagnosis to continue with those pregnancies or pay privately for service provision to which they should be entitled.”

For abortion advice contact Marie Stopes UK on 0345 300 8090.

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