By Hilary White

BELFAST, May 28, 2010 ( – Efforts by the British government to bring legal abortion by “bureaucratic stealth” into Northern Ireland will be met with a full legal challenge by the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC). The High Court in Belfast has granted leave to SPUC to launch a challenge after the Department of Health, without explanation, reissued medical practice guidelines that had been rejected by the High Court for violating the province’s abortion laws.

For three years the guidelines have been the focus of an intense battle in Northern Ireland, where abortion remains a crime, between the pro-life movement and pro-abortion forces in the British government.

SPUC’s Liam Gibson told (LSN) today, “At present it’s difficult to tell whether our case will be overtaken by events, but the department is hellbent on pushing its abortion guidance forward no matter what happens.”

Gibson said that the department has maintained from the beginning an attitude of “belligerence,” and “followed a fixed agenda regardless of demonstrated public opinion, the representations of pro-life medical and legal professionals, and elected politicians in the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Assembly’s health committee.”

The guidelines saga that has been ongoing since 2007 when then-minister for Northern Ireland, Paul Goggins, promised that the British government would not interfere with the province’s abortion laws. Later that year, the department issued the draft guidelines that were identified by pro-life groups and MLAs as an attempt to bring legal abortion into Northern Ireland by the back door.

These were first beaten back in October 2007 by a motion passed in the Assembly by MLAs Jeffrey Donaldson and Iris Robinson. The department responded by bringing the same guidelines back in 2008, after which SPUC took the department to court.

The High Court’s Justice Girvan issued a ruling in November 2009 that the guidelines violated Northern Ireland’s law and must be withdrawn. In February the next year, the department ignored the ruling and brought the guidelines back again, with two sections on “non-directive counselling” and consent “temporarily” removed – a move called “baffling and bizzare” and “deceitful” by SPUC and other pro-life groups.

“The bitter determination of the health department to reject any input from the pro-life movement underlines just how important these abortion guidelines are,” Gibson said today.

“Even when the SPUC was successful in court,” he said, “the department took the unusual step of asking for a second hearing in an attempt to convince the the judge to change his mind on the withdrawal of the entire guidance document.”

When this effort failed, the department responded by ignoring the ruling and re-issuing the document that Gibson said is “in precisely the form the court said would be inappropriate”. When SPUC returned to court to force the department to comply, the department asked for a four-week adjournment, refusing to give a reason for the request.

“It appears that the department intends to issue a new consultation document in the near future, but it is not clear how this will affect the current version of the guidance, which we believe should be withdrawn at once,” Gibson said.

Read related LSN coverage:

U.K. Reissuing of Pro-Abortion Guidelines against Court Order “Baffling and Bizarre”: SPUC

U.K. “Deceitful” for Re-Issuing Court-Rejected Abortion Guidelines for N. Ireland