With the support of Amnesty International and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, a mother who obtained abortion pills for her 15-year-old daughter has mounted a legal challenge against her prosecution.
The woman, who cannot be named for legal reasons, is facing two counts of procuring and supplying abortion drugs with the intent to procure a miscarriage.
If convicted, she could face up to five years in prison.
The two-day review into the case, known as JR76, will focus on the woman’s claim that prosecution contravenes her human rights.
Ahead of the first session on Tuesday, pro-choice and anti-abortion campaigners gathered outside the court where the woman’s solicitor emphasised the national importance of the case.
Describing it as “an important day for my client”, Jemma Conlon said: “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.”
Grainne Teggart, from Amnesty International, added: “This case is the first ever direct challenge to a prosecution under Northern Ireland’s restrictive abortion law.
“All this mother has done is help her daughter access abortion pills that are prescribed free on the NHS in every other part of the UK. This is an obvious and cruel injustice.
“This woman has done nothing wrong and yet our laws treat her as a criminal. It’s unacceptable that she has had to suffer and endure five distressing years of legal battles and a fight against a prison sentence.”
Opening proceedings, the mother’s barrister, Karen Quinlivan QC, told a panel of three senior judges that the prosecution could have a “chilling effect” on women seeking help from their GPs.
The 15-year-old student had gone to her local doctor a week after taking the abortion medication.
She was subsequently referred to a mental health counselling service, which in turn informed social services. Social services then alerted the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
The barrister said investigating police officers then arrived at the child’s school and removed her from a classroom to speak to her in the absence of her parents.
Quinlivan told the court the teenage girl was “extremely vulnerable” at the time of her pregnancy, claiming her then ex-boyfriend was “physically and emotionally abusive” toward her.
She said the case centered on a “vulnerable child facing a crisis pregnancy in a jurisdiction which criminalises abortions”.
Quinlivan insisted the mother acted in her daughter’s “best interests”.
While it is in place for the rest of the UK, the 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland, meaning abortion is illegal except where a woman’s life is at risk, or there is a permanent or serious danger to her mental or physical health.
A group of Labour MPs is currently pushing to end Northern Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws.
Last month, Westminster voted in favour of reform to abortion and marriage laws in Northern Ireland, which could mean the province has to comply with human rights legislation that applies in the rest of the UK.
Labour MP Stella Creasy made an amendment to legislation on Northern Ireland’s power-sharing crisis, stipulating that in the absence of devolved rule in Belfast, the UK Government can direct officials on the ‘incompatibility’ of human rights law - including the continued curbs on abortion and gay marriage.