UK government to face legal challenge over Northern Ireland abortion law

The UK government is facing a legal challenge over the medical framework which would allow abortion to take place in Northern Ireland.

Campaigners for the decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland during a rally in Belfast.

Anti-abortion group, Right to Life UK, has said that it will take the Northern Ireland Secretary to court if the framework "goes further than the government is legally required to introduce".

A consultation on the framework was launched in November following the successful campaign to decriminalise abortion in Northern Ireland in October.

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The government now has to put legislation in place by March 31 regarding the practical provision of abortion services, including termination timescales.

However, lawyers acting on behalf of Right to Life UK, have today sent a pre-action notice to Brandon Lewis warning that the organisation will take legal action against the government if the final framework "goes far beyond the limited changes strictly necessary".

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG), the Royal College of Midwives and the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare have already recommended there should be no restrictions up to 24 weeks as curtailing access to abortion care before then "only creates barriers for women".

The professional bodies, which represent a large proportion of the workforce involved in providing abortion care across the UK, have said there is no clinical basis for introducing a restriction at either 12 or 14 weeks and that doing so presents a series of difficulties, including a number of women having to travel to the rest of the UK to complete their abortions.

They also argue that it would represent a failed regulatory framework.

Pressure grew for change in Northern Ireland after the Irish referendum in 2018 which saw a landslide victory for the Yes campaign which sought the amendment of abortion laws in the south. The change in Northern Ireland - which was widely welcomed by women's rights campaigners - also came after the High Court in London ruled last year that the abortion law breached the UK's human rights commitments.

However, many in Northern Ireland have been resistant to the change, and the campaign group Right to Life UK, has said it believes the framework now being developed could mean the UK government is acting unlawfully.

It claims that as Stormont was not operating when Westminster passed the abortion law, it should "leave any other changes to the law to the Northern Ireland Assembly" and claims the proposed framework "drops many of the current legal safeguards provided by the Abortion Act in England and Wales."

Spokesperson for Right To Life UK Catherine Robinson said: “Today our lawyers have issued a pre-action notice to the government informing them that, should they proceed to implement abortion proposals that go far beyond what they are legally required to introduce to Northern Ireland, the government would be acting unlawfully.

However Dr Carolyn Bailie, RCOG chair, said restricting access to abortion care before 24 weeks "only creates barriers for women".

"For too long women in desperate circumstances have been unable to access abortion care in Northern Ireland," she said. "In recent years, women have had to travel to access services where a diagnosis of a life-limiting fetal anomaly has been made and where women have felt unable to continue the pregnancy to term."

Karen Murray, from the Royal College of Midwives, said: "The RCM joins the RCOG and FRSH in urging the government to introduce a legal framework which is based on the best available evidence and does not intrude clinically unnecessary and administratively burdensome restrictions which create barriers to care.

"This system will not only safeguard women's rights, but will also facilitate our members to provide high quality care to women in Northern Ireland."