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Sarah Ewart: Belfast High Court to rule on landmark abortion case

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Sarah Ewart: Belfast High Court to rule on landmark abortion case

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Sarah Ewart traveled to England for a termination

The Belfast Supreme Court must rule on a woman's challenge against Northern Ireland's abortion laws.

The court will decide whether the laws violate UK human rights commitments in a historic case.

Sarah Ewart was denied an abortion in 2013, although doctors say her son would not survive outside the womb.

She went to England for a termination and campaigned to change NI law in cases of fatal fetal abnormality.

Termination is only permitted in Northern Ireland if a woman's life is at risk or if there is a risk of permanent and serious damage to her mental or physical health.

Rape, incest or diagnosis of fatal fetal abnormality (FGA) – where doctors believe a baby will die before, during or shortly after birth – are not grounds for legal abortion in Northern Ireland.

The decision is expected 18 days before the change in abortion legislation in Northern Ireland.

Legislation brought by MPs in Westminster in July means that abortion will be decriminalized – and the government will have to establish abortion services regulations by next April.

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Sarah Ewart arriving at the Supreme Court in London last year

Northern Ireland has been without deconcentrated government since January 2017, when the ruling parties – the DUP and Sinn Féin – split into a bitter dispute.

Several conversations have failed to restore power-sharing institutions.

The new law will take effect if Stormont's executive is not restored by October 21.

For this to happen, political parties must form the assembly again – something they have failed to achieve in almost three years.

The Northern Ireland Office (NIO) is planning to launch an awareness campaign related to the expected change in the abortion law.

Analysis: potential for closure

Marie Louise Connolly, BBC News NI Health Correspondent

This Supreme Court decision is a striking case. But since Westminster got involved, he hasn't had the same advantage.

The July intervention by MPs means that abortion will be decriminalized anyway.

But Thursday may be important to the woman who has become largely synonymous with the local history of abortion.

If the decision follows Sarah Ewart's path, it will provide some closure after several years of difficult and harrowing campaigns.

Ewart accepted the High Court case on his own behalf after an appeal by the Supreme Court, led by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC), failed last year.

Most Supreme Court judges agreed that existing legislation in Northern Ireland was incompatible with human rights law in cases of fatal fetal abnormality and sexual crime.

However, the judges rejected the NIHRC case for technical reasons, stating that the organization did not have the legal capacity to present such a challenge.

The judges said the case would have more merit if it had been brought by a pregnant woman as a result of a sexual crime or carrying a fetus with a fatal abnormality.

Ewart subsequently agreed to lead the challenge based on his own experience.

She sought a judicial review of Northern Ireland's abortion laws.

Opposition

Late last month, hundreds of health professionals wrote to the Northern Ireland secretary expressing opposition to the liberalization of these laws.

Doctors, nurses and midwives said their consciences would not allow them to remain silent about the issue.

They said they wanted to assure as "conscientious objectors" that they would not need to perform or assist abortions.

Those who signed the letter said their concern was for pregnant mothers and the unborn and, as Christians, firmly believed that abortion was the "unjust and violent taking of human life."

Midwives for both lives – a group opposed to any change in law – argues that "there is currently no conscientious objection at NI for midwives … in contrast to our mainland UK counterparts who are protected by law and the NMC code "

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Both the anti-abortion (left) and pro-choice demonstrations drew large crowds in Belfast's city center in September.

On September 6, crowds gathered in Stormont to protest against possible changes to abortion law.

On September 7, two rallies – one organized by those who support the change in NI abortion law and the other by those who oppose it – took place in Belfast city center.

Why is the law different in Northern Ireland?

The Abortion Act of 1967, which liberalized the rules in Britain, was never extended to Northern Ireland.

Termination is currently only permitted in Northern Ireland if a woman's life is at risk or if there is a risk of permanent and serious damage to her mental or physical health.

Rape, incest or diagnosis of fatal fetal abnormality (FGA) – where doctors believe a baby will die before, during or shortly after birth – are not grounds for legal abortion in Northern Ireland.

However, anti-abortion activists argue that doctors cannot reliably predict the timescale of death and point to several cases in which babies defied prognosis and survived into adulthood.

Last year, most Supreme Court justices found that these restrictions violated the UK's human rights obligations.

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