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Mother wins right to challenge prosecution for buying abortion pills in Northern Ireland

BMJ 2017; 356 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.j527 (Published 01 February 2017) Cite this as: BMJ 2017;356:j527
  1. Clare Dyer
  1. The BMJ

A mother who faces criminal charges in Northern Ireland for procuring abortion pills over the internet for her 15 year old daughter has won permission from the High Court to challenge the prosecution as a breach of human rights.

In a case that will focus renewed attention on Northern Ireland’s draconian abortion laws, Lord Justice Weatherup and Mrs Justice Keegan gave permission to apply for a judicial review of the decision to prosecute. The judges said that the case raised “issues of considerable public importance and public debate” and listed the hearing for May.

The unnamed mother said in a statement to the court that in 2013 she bought the mifepristone and misoprostol pills for her daughter, who was in a physically abusive relationship with a boy a year older, unaware that she was committing a criminal offence. The rest of the UK is governed by the liberalising 1967 Abortion Act, but in Northern Ireland almost all terminations are unlawful, and prosecutions are still brought under the 1861 Offences against the Person Act.

Abortions are lawful in the province only if “there is a risk of a real and serious adverse effect on a woman’s long-term physical or mental health.” At the risk of committing a criminal offence, doctors have been reluctant to carry out terminations, and the number of abortions reported in the province dropped from 51 in 2012-13 to only 16 in 2014-15.

The mother in the case is charged with procuring a poison to induce a miscarriage and supplying the poison to her daughter, offences carrying a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.

In her statement she said she had been concerned about her daughter’s emotional wellbeing and took her to the GP. Unaware that she was doing anything illegal, she was “totally open with the GP and all other professionals I dealt with.”

Two months later a doctor at the medical centre told police that the girl had taken the pills and her medical notes were handed over without her consent.

Lawyers for the girl and her mother argue that compelling the daughter to continue with the pregnancy would have constituted inhuman treatment, in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights, and that prosecuting the mother and releasing the medical notes without consent also breached the convention.

The judges have allowed four organisations to intervene in the case and make representations to the court: the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, the Family Planning Association, the Royal College of Midwives, and the British Humanist Association.

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