Friday 28 May 2010

Belfast court gives green light to abortion guidance challenge

The high court in Belfast has granted leave to SPUC for a full legal challenge of the decision to re-issue controversial guidance on abortion, despite a last-minute attempt by the Northern Ireland health department to have the case adjourned.

We argued that the publication of the guidance in its current form was perverse, and contravened a 30 November court order for the document’s withdrawal. Following the success of our previous judicial review, the department sought permission to withdraw only the sections of the guidance dealing with counselling and the rights of medical staff to non-participation in abortion. Those sections were heavily criticised by Lord Justice Girvan on 30 November. He ruled that the issues in the guidance were inter-related, that the guidance must therefore be withdrawn in its entirety and reconsidered.

James Dingemans QC, representing SPUC at today's hearing, argued that the department’s decision effectively ignoring last year’s ruling was “simply impermissible and irrational”. Mr Justice Treacy said that our application had more than exceeded the threshold necessary for the challenge to go to the next stage of a full judicial review.

Liam Gibson of SPUC Northern Ireland, speaking outside the high court yesterday, told the media:
“Today’s events are yet more evidence of the bitter and irrational approach taken by the department of health to the issue of abortion guidance. At the very last minute the department asked the judge for an adjournment but refused to give any reasons for a four-week delay. Sadly, this is the way the department has behaved all along. It has disregarded public opinion, the will of the Assembly, the Stormont health committee and even the high court, in order to pursue an agenda of widening the scope for abortion in Northern Ireland.

“We don’t believe that the department has given any serious consideration to the ruling made by Lord Justice Girvan last year. A document that says nothing about counselling of women or the rights of medical staff cannot possibly provide adequate guidance to doctors. Naturally, we’re pleased that Mr Justice Treacy has granted leave for the case to proceed.”

On 30 November Lord Justice Girvan ruled against the department’s guidance on two grounds:
(1) because abortion remains illegal in Northern Ireland, it was wrong to expect medical providers to give non-directive counselling to women who might be considering abortion.
(2) the guidance was wrong regarding the rights of health professionals to non-participation in abortion (conscientious objection).
On 14 December Lord Justice Girvan confirmed that the guidance should be withdrawn in whole and not merely in part.

Also yesterday, the Family Planning Association (FPA) published an opinion poll of Northern Ireland’s obstetricians and gynaecologists, which the FPA claims shows a groundswell of support for a more liberal abortion law. Liam Gibson says it is disgraceful that the FPA, which receives funding from the Northern Ireland health department, should be conducting a campaign to overturn the Province’s legal protection for children before birth. Liam rejects the significance of the poll and told the media yesterday:
“The FPA is considered to be a charity but its number one aim is to promote abortion on demand. Yet it has consistently failed to persuade the people of Northern Ireland to accept the killing of unborn children.
“While the FPA claims that this latest survey represents the opinions of obstetricians and gynaecologists, the survey only deals with abortion for social reasons. Medical grounds for abortion are never mentioned, because there is not one medical benefit associated with abortion. There are, however, hundreds of scientific studies showing the damage effects abortion has on women and their subsequent children. Abortion is not healthcare, but a fatal form of child abuse. It is never justified. Northern Ireland has the best maternal mortality rate in the United Kingdom because our law protects both women and children.

"The FPA's suggestion that so-called 'abortion charities' should be licensed to carry out abortions in Northern Ireland demonstrates that the FPA’s real concern is its financial interests in the abortion industry.”

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