A woman is challenging a decision to prosecute her for obtaining abortion pills for her pregnant underage daughter in a potential landmark case for abortion rights in Northern Ireland.
She will seek to overturn a decision by the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland to subject her to a criminal trial and the prospect of five years in prison for supplying the pills in 2013 to her then 15-year-old daughter, who terminated the pregnancy.
The woman is accused of two charges of unlawfully procuring and supplying abortion pills contrary to the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act.
The judicial review is the first time prosecutors have faced a direct challenge over a decision relating to the criminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland. The case will be heard on Thursday and Friday at the Royal Courts of Justice in Belfast. A decision may take weeks or months.
“The fear and pain of it all. I feel like I am not allowed to move on,” said the woman, who has not been named, in a press statement released on the eve of the hearing by Amnesty International, which isbacking her challenge.
She said she had endured “five years of agony” with the prosecution hanging over her and her family. “The only place I feel safe and I can speak is in work, because it’s anonymous and I have a distraction,” the woman said.
She said she had lost all trust in doctors and no longer used their services because it was her GP who alerted police to the case.
The judicial review comes two days after Ireland’s president, Michael Higgins, signed a bill repealing the Irish Republic’s constitutional ban on abortion. Voters decisively backed liberalisation in a referendum in May.
The government plans to table legislation next month permitting abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.
The Irish Republic’s dramatic turnaround has galvanised efforts by pro-choice campaigners to align Northern Ireland with the rest of the UK. The 1967 Abortion Act in Britain was never extended to the region. Northern Ireland allows abortion only if the life or health of the mother is at risk.
Jemma Conlon, the woman’s lawyer, said challenging the prosecution could pave the way for change.
“This is an important day for my client. At the centre of this case is a loving mother and daughter who, over the past five years, have had to repeatedly endure and relive a private and distressing time in their lives. If we’re successful in our challenge to the prosecution, this will contribute to the dismantling of a law that for so long has been used as a weapon against women and girls’ rights,” she said.
Grainne Teggart, Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland campaign manager, said: “This mother is not a criminal. Her daughter is not a criminal. Women who want to access abortions in Northern Ireland are not criminals – the law should not treat them as such.”
The abortion pills mifepristone and misoprostol can be taken up to nine weeks into a pregnancy and have been approved for use by the World HealthOrganization since 2005.
The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission welcomed the judicial review as a continuation of momentum towards changing abortion laws, following a supreme court ruling in June that the region’s legislation wasincompatible with human rights laws.
Anti-abortion groups have urged authorities to continue enforcing the law and to arrest pro-choice activists who bring pills into Northern Ireland.
Theresa May has resisted calls from some Westminster MPs for a House of Commons vote or Northern Ireland referendum on the ban. Either could alienate the Democratic Unionist party, which shores up the Conservative government.