Page last updated at 14:13 GMT, Monday, 30 November 2009

Anti-abortionists win court challenge

abortion equipment
Abortion is illegal in Northern Ireland unless a woman's life is at risk

Anti-abortion campaigners have won a High Court bid to clarify government guidelines on abortion in Northern Ireland.

The Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (Spuc) claimed guidance to health professionals was misleading.

The court ruled the guidelines be withdrawn because they did not deal properly with the issues of counselling and conscientious objection.

The Family Planning Association called the decision "disappointing".

Abortion is illegal in NI, except in limited circumstances where the mother's life or mental well-being are considered at risk.

Spuc sought a judicial review of the document, which was published by the Department of Health in March and was the first guide for health professionals in Northern Ireland on terminating pregnancy.

Spuc was seeking a declaration that the decision to publish the advice was unlawful.

'Trap for unwary'

The judge, Lord Justice Girvan, stopped short of quashing the document.

However, he said as some of the guidance it contains is misleading it should be withdrawn.

The judge said that, as the guidelines stand, people could offer counselling which is, arguably, breaking the law.

This referred to the part of document which had stated that non-judgmental non-directive counselling should be available to women before, during and after termination of pregnancy.

The judge said this was unclear and could lead to the adoption of counselling procedures that were arguably unlawful, such as giving advice as to the availability of abortion services elsewhere in the UK.


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He said the Department of Health should, in particular, consider what guidance should be given to deal with the situation where a pregnant woman wants to have an abortion but does not fulfil the criteria for an abortion to be carried out legally in Northern Ireland.

The judge said that the department must also examine the relationship between counselling and making clinical judgements.

He ordered that guidance on conscientious objection should be reconsidered.

He said the current guidelines were open to misinterpretation, the language was "ambiguous" and left doctors and staff unclear as to what was expected of them.

The judge said the guidance needed to be absolutely clear otherwise it represented "a trap to the unwary".


The judge awarded costs to Spuc.

Liam Gibson of Spuc Northern Ireland said the organisation was "very pleased" with the judge's decision.

"We hope that the department will now take seriously many of the concerns which were largely disregarded when the guidelines were being drafted," Mr Gibson said.

"Any new guidance that the department brings forward needs to take fully into account the duty of care and the legal protection owed to the child before birth."

Director of the Family Planning Association, Audrey Simpson, said the ruling was a blow.

"We have health professionals once again having to operate in a vacuum, not knowing what to do when a woman presents with them who may be entitled to an abortion in Northern Ireland," she said.

"And, of course, who loses out most in that? The women."

A spokesperson for the Department of Health said it was "disappointed" by the ruling and would consider its response.

"The department welcomes the judge's finding that the guidance does not mislead health professionals about the law relating to the termination of pregnancy in Northern Ireland and notes that in six of the eight contested issues the court found in the department's favour.

"It is giving careful consideration to the two adverse findings."

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