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Watch barrister Caoilfhionn Gallagher describe her legal work on abortion law in Northern Ireland
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I’m not one of those lawyers who became a lawyer because I loved the law. I actually became a lawyer because I thought the law could be a useful tool for social justice. So that’s the background that I’ve come from. So law was one of a range of options and I thought that law could be used to support individuals and help individuals, and help improve the lives of individuals, so that’s really what motivates me in doing these cases.
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So Northern Irish women and girls are in a very, very different position - and the position in Northern Ireland is that it has one of the most restrictive laws on abortion rights throughout the entirety of Europe, and indeed across the world. So there is currently in Northern Ireland the possibility of a life sentence for someone who either obtains an abortion or gives assistance in procuring an abortion. So that is very far removed from the position in the rest of the UK. At the most recent case that I acted in with the humanists in relation to abortion rights concerned some very extreme categories of case in Northern Ireland.
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So it concerned women and girls who were pregnant as a result of rape or incest, so who’d become pregnant through sexual violence, and wanted to have an abortion and were unable to do so. Their choices were very, very stark. Their choices were either continue with the pregnancy and have an unwanted child and a connection permanently to their rapist, their abuser, or break the law in Northern Ireland by, for example, obtaining abortion pills and face the risk of prosecution.
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Many women have been prosecuted in the last number of months for taking abortion pills - or scraped together the money to try to travel over to England in order to have an abortion here, and to access basic healthcare services, here in England, not available to them at home. And that’s a very difficult decision for many women, and also it’s a decision which, of course, means even if they have the money and they travel over, they’re going to be away from their support network and it makes what is an incredibly difficult, very, very personal decision, all the more difficult. The other main category of case that we were looking at there concerned fatal foetal abnormality cases.
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So women like Sarah Ewart, who have a much loved, much wanted pregnancy, and who discover at a late stage in their pregnancy that the foetus is not viable. And there, in circumstances where if that happened to a woman in England or happened to a woman in Scotland, she could promptly have a procedure, very close to her own home and near her support network, in Northern Ireland the
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only options, again, are: be criminalised, continue with the pregnancy, or travel and have to go through that journey.
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And then one final case: there’s a case called JR76 which the humanists are involved in at the moment, and that concerns a young girl who became pregnant in circumstances where she was in an abusive relationship with an older man. She became pregnant, her mother obtained abortion pills for her, which she took, and when she had abnormal bleeding she was taken to the doctor. And the result of her mother taking her to the doctor in those circumstances, is that the mother has now been prosecuted for assisting with her procuring an abortion. And that raises very serious public interest concerns. It raises very serious concerns about what is going to happen in future cases when someone has abnormal bleeding.
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There’s an obvious chilling effect from this prosecution, which might mean that women won’t come forward, and won’t go and seek medical help, and that could obviously put women’s lives and their health at risk.
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There’s a Roald Dahl quote which I won’t get quite right, but it says, in essence, that lukewarm is no good, white hot and passionate is the only way to be. And I have it on the wall in my room, amongst pictures of a number of my clients that I’ve acted for over the last number of years, who really drive and inspire me. And I look at that whenever I’m having a bad day and it reminds me that actually, in order to do this job, and do this job well, we’ve got to be white hot and passionate. We’ve got to be completely driven and we’ve got to be motivated to try to get the right result.
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I think on days when you get the right result, this is the best job in the world, because our clients are so critically important and impressive, and the issues are so important. And when we get the right result, you have used the law to change things for the better.

Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC is a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers, specialising in human rights and civil liberties. She has acted for Humanists UK in a series of cases relating to assisted dying and the reproductive rights of women and girls in Northern Ireland.

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