Northern Ireland Health Department Loses Case Over Abortion Guidelines

International   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Dec 13, 2009   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Northern Ireland Health Department Loses Case Over Abortion Guidelines

by Steven Ertelt Editor
December 13
, 2009

Washington, DC ( — The Northern Ireland health department has lost its case in court today after pro-life groups challenged its abortion rules. The abortion guidelines the health department released in March drew a challenge from the British pro-life group SPUC.

The organization says the guidelines, which explain the rare circumstances when abortions can be legally done, could be used to legalize abortion through the back door.

The new document says abortions can be done for two reasons: to "preserve the life of the woman" or if a physician determines continuing the pregnancy will impose "a risk of real and serious adverse effect on her physical or mental health which is either long-term or permanent."

Northern Ireland, unlike the rest of Great Britain, does not allow abortions and makes them available only when the life of the mother is at risk. SPUC wants the guidelines declared unlawful and for them to not be used.

Lord Justice Girvan rejected the health department’s request that he change his order so only two sections on the abortion counseling be reconsidered.

Although he did not completely quash the guidelines, Girvan said the document was unclear and said it should be withdrawn.

Nicolas Hanna, an attorney for the health department, complained about the decision in an interview with UTV but claimed a partial victory because it was not totally thrown out.

"It’s important to recognize that a challenge has been brought to this guidance, most of which has failed," he said. ‘In particular the fundamental challenge to the guidance on the law in Northern Ireland has failed."

But David Scoffield, an attorney for SPUC, responded that it is a victory for pro-life advocates because the judge ruled in their favor on the main points.

"We say it is artificial for the Department to suggest that a number of very small portions of the guidance could simply be excised and the rest of guidance remains utterly unaffected," he said.

Meanwhile, Precious Life, a Northern Ireland pro-life group, told the ruling was "another victory for unborn children" and a failure for the health department.

"We welcome Lord Justice Girvan’s firm statement that he would not vary his order requiring the guidelines to be withdrawn," the group’s director Bernadette Smyth said.

“We have been vindicated once again. Since these guidelines were published, Precious Life has been campaigning for their complete withdrawal. They were flawed both medically and legally, and would have effectively legalized abortion in Northern Ireland ‘through the back door,’" she added.

“In last month’s ruling, Lord Justice Girvan criticized two sections of the guidelines. However, these sections overlap with many other parts of the guidelines. It was ludicrous for the Department to think they could only change these two sections and leave the rest of guidelines unaffected," she told "Our analysis that the entire guidelines had to be withdrawn was backed up by Lord Justice Girvan’s statement today. He said the two sections he had criticized were significant portions of the guidelines and the effect of the errors made the guidelines as a whole misleading."

The health department may appeal the decision, so any further decision on whether it has to pay the legal costs borne by the pro-life group has been postponed.

SPUC argued that because abortion remains illegal in Northern Ireland, it was wrong to expect medical providers to give non-directive counseling to women who might be considering abortion.

The group also argued that the government’s guidance was wrong regarding non-participation in abortion (conscientious objection).

Judge Girvan ruled in favor of SPUC on these points in November and concluded this portion of the case today.

The health department recently reported that legal abortions carried out in Northern Ireland averaged almost two per week last year.

Official figures released in response to an assembly question asked by SDLP MLA Pat Ramsey revealed that 92 women had abortions in 2008. Some 79 women underwent an abortion in Northern Ireland the previous year.

In May, a Department of Health report revealed that 1,173 women had traveled to England to have an abortion last year, in comparison to 1,343 for 2007.

Related web sites:
Precious Life –

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