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Belfast court gives green light to abortion guidance challenge

27 May 2010

Belfast court gives green light to abortion guidance challenge Belfast, 27 May 2010 – The high court in Belfast has granted leave to the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (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.

SPUC 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 SPUC’s 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He ruled that the issues in the guidance were inter-related, that the guidance must therefore be withdrawn in its entirety and reconsidered.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 SPUC’s 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, said: “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”, said Mr Gibson.

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.

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