She helped her 15 year old get an abortion. Now she's facing charges in Northern Ireland

By Haley Ott

/ CBS News

Impact of abortion ban in Northern Ireland

London — A woman is facing criminal charges in Northern Ireland for getting her 15-year-old daughter abortion pills to end an unwanted pregnancy in 2013. The woman's lawyer says the police were alerted after the daughter, who was in an abusive relationship, told a therapist she had taken the pills. The woman's legal team is challenging the prosecution.

Abortion is against the law in Northern Ireland except when a pregnant woman's health is at risk of permanent harm. There are no exceptions in cases of rape or incest. Women who have illegal abortions can face up to life in prison if caught, and medical professionals are required to report anyone who has had one to the authorities.

The mother faces a sentence of up to five years in jail for procuring and supplying abortion pills to her daughter. If she had administered them, she could have faced life in prison.

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Healthcare providersin Northern Ireland had been fearful of a situation that would pit them against the country's strict abortion laws in the course of their work, Suzanne Tyler, executive director of the Royal College of Midwives, told CBS News.

She said the case shows that the "theoretical risk" posed by the laws has now become "a very real situation," demonstrating that Northern Irish prosecutors are willing to charge people over illegal abortions that are disclosed during the course of medical treatment.

Women have been prosecuted for having illegal abortions in Northern Ireland before, but this is the first time the decision by prosecutors to pursue these types of charges has been challenged. A court in Northern Ireland is reviewing the decision as part of a process knows as "judicial review." The court has the power to strike down the charges, and there has not yet been a decision. Despite the fact that the judicial review is ongoing, a criminal court date has been set for the mother for November 18, 2019. Amnesty International says the court date was set on Tuesday, despite there not yet being an outcome in the judicial review.

A long fight

The mother, whose name has not been shared to protect her and her daughter's privacy, has been fighting the case for more than five years, arguing that criminal prosecution would violate her rights under the European Convention on Human Rights.

"An innocent family is being prosecuted for being open and transparent with medical professionals," Jemma Conlon, the mother's attorney, told CBS News.

"This is a private family matter," Conlon said. "It has caused immense distress and anguish for nearly 5.5 years."

Grainne Teggart, head of campaigns in Northern Ireland for Amnesty International, said the outcome of the case will have wide ranging implications.

"Women are reluctant to go to their doctors and seek help, because they see cases like this mother where she's being prosecuted, and they're afraid," Teggart told CBS News. "So they stay at home, and they bleed."

A legal quagmire

Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, where abortion is legal, but the U.K. law on abortion doesn't apply there because Northern Ireland is semi-autonomous.

So while women in other parts of the U.K. can get abortions at local facilities run by the tax-funded National Health Service, people in Northern Ireland have to travel, which can be financially and logistically prohibitive, or order illegal abortion pills online.

Tumultuous Northern Irish politics have left the region without a functioning local government since the beginning of 2017. Since then, a United Nations committee has declared Northern Ireland's abortion laws a "grave and systematic" breach of women's rights. A majority of U.K. supreme court judges said Northern Irish laws were not compatible with human rights in cases of sexual crimes and fatal fetal abnormalities, though the relevant case was dismissed because of a legal technicality.

"If the judicial review (of the mother's case) is successful, it will set an important precedent and put a firm spotlight on the impact of the criminalization of women and this form of healthcare," Teggart told CBS News. "Women who need abortions are not criminals, it's time the law stopped treating them as such."

"Don't ask, don't tell"

It is often impossible for doctors to tell just from symptoms if a woman is having a natural miscarriage or has taken abortion pills. If a person goes to the hospital seeking care, healthcare providers will normally ask if they've taken medicine to determine the right course of treatment. The policy of the Royal College of Midwives, however, has been to avoid asking women in Northern Ireland whether they have taken abortion pills — to avoid being forced to tell the police if the answer is yes.

"If a woman were to come into a maternity ward on a Friday night, bleeding, that could be because she was having a miscarriage, or it could be because she bought the abortion pills over the internet. You can't ask that question though," Tyler told CBS News.

"The first question when you see most health professionals is: Are you taking any other medication? Because you need to know what else is going on in that person's body. So if you can't ask the question, 'have you taken the abortion pills,' you don't know whether or not she's taken that medication, and therefore… you're almost treating them with one big bit of information about their health and well-being missing."

The Northern Irish Department of Health's guidance to health care providers notes that they are obliged to report illegal abortions. It also acknowledges, however, that a "health professional is unlikely to be able to tell whether a miscarriage has occurred naturally or has been caused by abortifacient drugs."

So they often don't ask.

"When we have challenged the Northern Ireland government about giving health professionals good advice about what they should do in this situation, we have basically been told, 'just don't ask and you won't be told,'" Tyler said.

Amnesty International says they are concerned that a criminal court date has been set for the mother before the outcome of the judicial review has been announced.

First published on June 26, 2019 / 10:54 AM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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