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Mother to challenge Northern Ireland's abortion laws in court

A woman who bought abortion pills for her teenage daughter in 2013 faces up to five years in prison after her doctor reported the case to the police. But she is choosing to challenge her prosecution in an attempt to reform the country's strict anti-abortion laws.

Clodagh Kilcoyne
People celebrate the removal of Ireland's abortion ban in May 2018 following a referendum vote on the issue. Northern Ireland has yet to remove a similar ban.

A mother who bought abortion pills for her teenage daughter will on Nov. 6 challenge a decision to prosecute her, in the latest effort to reform Northern Ireland's restrictive laws.

The woman, who cannot be named for legal reasons, was charged with two counts of unlawfully procuring and supplying abortion pills in 2013 and faces up to five years in prison.

"This woman has done nothing wrong and yet our laws treat her as a criminal," said Amnesty International's Northern Ireland campaign manager Grainne Teggart in a statement.

"We hope the judges consider this case and its implications very carefully, and listen to the women, politicians, medical practitioners, and lawyers who are all calling for an end to this cruel and outdated law."

Amnesty said the court hearing on Nov. 6 in Belfast marked the first time a prosecution under Northern Ireland's abortion law had been challenged.

Abortion is permitted in Northern Ireland only if a woman's life is in danger or there is a long-term or permanent risk to her mental or physical health. It is not allowed in cases of rape, incest, or fatal fetal abnormality.

Northern Ireland is the only part of Britain or Ireland with such a restrictive regime, after voters in the Irish republic backed the removal of a ban in a landslide May vote that sparked calls for change in the North.

About 1,000 Northern Irish women travel to England each year to have an abortion, while others risk prosecution by self-medicating with abortion pills. 

The woman involved in the case bought the abortion pills at the request of her then 15-year-old daughter, who had been in a physically and mentally abusive relationship, according to Amnesty, which is supporting the family.

The mother later shared details with her doctor, who reported her to police, it said.

Britain's Supreme Court ruled in June the law was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, although it dismissed the case on a technicality because it was not brought by a person who was directly affected.

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, which initiated the earlier Supreme Court case, is also involved in the challenge to the mother's prosecution.

"Women and girls continue to face being criminalized in what should be solely a healthcare matter," Chief Commissioner Les Allamby told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an emailed statement.

"We are supportive of the growing public and parliamentary momentum calling for change on this issue."

Pro-choice campaigners have called for the British government to pass laws liberalizing abortion in Northern Ireland, after the devolved administration in Belfast collapsed in January 2017.

However, Prime Minister Theresa May has declined to intervene, saying any decision should be taken by authorities in Northern Ireland.

This story was reported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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