If the rumours are correct, then the Family Planning Association (FPA) will soon be returning to Court in another attempt to force the Department of Health Social Services and Public Safety to bring forward guidance on the abortion law and clinical practice in the Province. It appears that a hearing will be held Monday, 17th September at the High Court in Belfast.
This is just the latest episode in a battle which began back in 2001, when the FPA sought a judicial review of the health department’s refusal to issue guidance to “clarify” the law. Of course, the law was perfectly clear, but the FPA simply didn’t like what it said. After failing repeatedly to introduce the ’67 Act by political means, the abortion industry hoped to overturn Northern Ireland’s legal protection for unborn children in the Courts.
Having initially lost its case, the FPA won on appeal in 2005 and the DHSSPS was ordered by the Court to publish guidance. After years of lobbying, debate and re-drafting, guidance was issued in 2009. While the pro-life movement had managed to have some of the worst aspects removed from the early drafts, they were gravely concerned when the Executive unexpectedly approved a version which still contained serious flaws.
To appreciate the danger of this situation, it is necessary to understand that when the abortion industry speaks of guidance it is referring to bureaucratic mechanisms, targets and deadlines which regularise abortion. In the case of 'X', then the doctor does 'Y', if 'A' then 'B' follows within three weeks. And so on, until an abortion is no longer perceived as a criminal offence but as another medical procedure. It would become routine without the law ever having been changed.
Until the approval of the guidance by the Executive, SPUC had been satisfied to intervene as a third party in the cases brought by the FPA. Once the seriously flawed guidance had become official, however, there was no option but to seek a judicial review of our own. In October 2009, SPUC succeeded demonstrating that the guidance was so misleading that it had to be withdrawn. The judge rejected it on two important grounds: the type of counselling to be provided to women and the right of medical personnel not to participate in abortions.
Later, when commenting on the importance of the case, Jim Wells, the Deputy Chairman of the Assembly's Health Committee said: "If the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) had done nothing else in its 45-year history than defeat Northern Ireland's Health Department abortion guidance in the High Court, that achievement alone would have justified its existence."
It is because of SPUC's judicial review that guidance is still the subject of an intense struggle between the abortion industry and its allies in the Civil Service on one side, and pro-life groups and politicians on the other. Whatever the outcome of the FPA's new legal action, this struggle is set to continue.