By Hilary White

BELFAST, November 30, 2009 ( – Pro-life advocates in Northern Ireland are celebrating a major court victory today as the Belfast High Court has ordered the recall of health guidelines that they said would have undermined and effectively overturned the province's pro-life laws.

Lord Justice Girvan found that the guidelines failed to deal properly with conscientious objection to abortion and counseling on abortion. The judge said the guidelines were open to misinterpretation, saying the language was “ambiguous” and left doctors and staff unclear as to what was expected of them. The judge said the guidelines needed to be absolutely clear, otherwise they represented “a trap to the unwary.”

Justice Girvan awarded court costs against the Northern Ireland Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety.

Liam Gibson, Northern Ireland officer for the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) said, “We hope that the department will now take seriously many of the concerns which were largely disregarded when the guidelines were being drafted.”

Pro-life groups argued in court that the guidelines failed to mention the fact that abortion remains a criminal offense in Northern Ireland. They said they were “misleading and legally inaccurate” and would have brought abortion on demand into the province by “bureaucratic stealth.”

SPUC had argued that it was wrong for the Department of Health to expect health care workers to give “non-directive counselling” to women considering abortion.

“It is simply extraordinary that a government department should have issued guidance on criminal legislation and not have once mentioned the victim of the crime,” Gibson said.

Bernadette Smyth, director of Northern Ireland's leading pro-life group Precious Life, said, “The court decision today is a victory for our unborn children.” Precious Life ran a petition campaign calling for the withdrawal of the guidelines.

“Our assessment that the guidelines were legally and medically flawed has been vindicated. They were an attempt to change the interpretation of the law and would have effectively legalised abortion in Northern Ireland through the back door.”

That Britain's 1967 Abortion Act does not apply in Northern Ireland continues to irritate abortion advocates who campaign ceaselessly to overturn the province's law. Opposition in the province to abortion remains strong, however, from both the public and most political parties, including the Social Democrats, Labour Party, Sinn Féin, the Ulster Unionist Party and the Democratic Unionist Party as well as the Catholic Church and evangelical Protestant groups.

In October 2007 a motion was passed in the Northern Ireland Assembly, tabled by MLAs Jeffrey Donaldson and Iris Robinson, that rejected the draft guidelines. Nevertheless, the status of the guidelines remained ambiguous for a year while pro-life groups launched their legal challenge.

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