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Wednesday, 13 June, 2001, 17:42 GMT 18:42 UK
Q&A: Abortion in NI
The first leg of a legal battle to try to give women in Northern Ireland the same access to abortion facilities as women in other parts of the UK has begun.

The Family Planning Association (FPA) has been granted leave for a judicial review of the abortion rights in the province.

BBC Northern Ireland reporter Julian O'Neill, who was at the High Court hearing, looks at the controversial issues it raises.

Q. What is the law on abortion in Northern Ireland?

The law in Northern Ireland is as it was in Britain before 1967. The 1861 Offences Against the Person Act makes all abortions illegal. The 1929 Infant Life (Preservation) Act was extended to Northern Ireland in 1945 and allows abortion to preserve a mother's life. Also the Bourne judgement 1938 - case law allowing abortion in circumstances of risk to mental or physical health.

Q. Why was the 1967 Abortion Act, legalising abortions in England and Wales, not extended to the province?

When the Act went through Westminster, Northern Ireland had its own parliament and the issue of abortion was left for it to decide. It never took up the issue. When Direct Rule returned Westminster never extended it to Northern Ireland. During a Commons debate a government minister stated to the best of her knowledge no Northern Ireland MP ever called for changes in abortion law.

Q. Have women in Northern Ireland any rights when it comes to abortions?

Only as covered by the above statute and case law. Since 1999 over 70 abortions have been performed in Northern Ireland. But 1,500 women travel to England each year for abortions at a minimum cost of 450. The Family Planning Association says since 1967 five women are known to have died from 'backstreet' abortions in Northern Ireland.

Q. Is there particular opposition in Northern Ireland to changing the law?

The Catholic Church and four pro-life organisations have declared themselves against moves to liberalise abortion legislation and want to become involved in the legal challenge brought by the Family Planning Association.

The groups are the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC), Christian Action Research and Education (CARE), LIFE and Precious Life.

Ian Paisley's Free Presbyterian Church is also against attempts to change the law. In 1984 the Northern Ireland Assembly voted against the introduction of the Abortion Act or any like legislation to Northern Ireland.

Q. What do the Family Planning Association what to achieve by their legal action?

They say they are not trying to change the law, but would be happy if the case prompted a rethink. Opponents claim the case is a first step to having abortion freely available in Northern Ireland.

The Family Planning Association claim the Department of Health is acting unlawfully in failing to issue guidance on what abortion services are available, and in what circumstances, and in failing to provide proper public healthcare services to women with unplanned pregnancies.

They say a lack of clarity leads to "inconsistent medical practice".

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See also:

13 Jun 01 | Northern Ireland
Challenge to NI abortion laws
30 Oct 99 | Northern Ireland
PUP calls for extension of abortion act
27 May 01 | Northern Ireland
Bishop calls for abortion referendum
20 Jun 00 | Northern Ireland
No change to abortion law
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