Northern Ireland

NI abortion: Guidelines issued ahead of 21 October deadline

Doctors Image copyright Chinnapong
Image caption The medical profession is to receive new guidelines ahead of a change in the abortion law in Northern Ireland

The government has published guidance for healthcare professionals on abortion law in Northern Ireland.

The new guidelines cover the period from 22 October to 31 March 2020.

They set out what will happen following changes to the law after 21 October, if the NI Executive is not restored.

The guidance states that no criminal charges can be brought against those who have an abortion, or against health care professionals who provide and assist in an abortion.

The government said it has made arrangements to support women resident in Northern Ireland wishing to access services under the existing travel scheme.

In the interim period, abortions in cases of "fatal or serious fetal anomaly" may be carried out.

Health professionals will be given information about funded services in England.

If a woman approaches them and is considering an abortion, they should give her the number for the Central Booking Service in England or call the helpline on her behalf.

Also from 22 October all the travel and accommodation needs of women will be funded, regardless of income.

Public consultation

Further detail is also provided on conscientious objection.

The guidance notes that in England and Wales, the courts have found that its scope is limited to participating in a "hands on" capacity and does not allow for objection to ancillary or administrative tasks.

It further states "in the interim period, anyone who has a conscientious objection to abortion may want to raise this with their employer".

It says if they see a patient who is considering an abortion, they should follow guidance from their professional body.

Image copyright Getty Images

Analysis by Marie-Louise Connolly, Health Correspondent

What's critical about these guidelines is that they recognise that women must be made aware of all choices available to them. Also any support and advice must be provided without fear of either party worrying about being prosecuted.

In effect, what the guidelines do is remove the abortion issue from under the shadows, bringing it out into the open and allowing a light to be thrown on what is an extremely emotive and contentious issue.

Will they remove all stigma? Absolutely not.

As Sarah Ewart described last week outside court, no one wakes up and willingly or without feeling chooses to have a termination.

Some details have yet to be spelt out. For instance, if a woman or girl needs to be accompanied, will that person's expenses be covered too?

How is this information or guidance to be shared among the public?

While the guidelines were dropped somewhat quietly into the public domain, the response from some will be a lot more robust, with many people publicly shocked and dismayed about what is about to become legal in just a fortnight's time.

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Media captionSarah Ewart (left) led a high-profile campaign to change NI's law in cases of fatal fetal abnormality

The guidance recognises that some women may continue to buy medical abortion pills online.

As these are prescription only, their sale and supply remains unlawful but women "will be able to seek medical assistance in NI".

Health professionals, notes the guidance, will not be under any duty to report an offence.

It also sets out that a public consultation on the proposed legal framework for Northern Ireland will open on or just after 22 October.

The government said it is "imperative that health and social care professionals understand these changes and their duties under the law, if the duty comes into effect and the law changes".

It also makes clear that this supersedes guidance provided by the Northern Ireland Department of Health in 2016.

The government states that, given the "urgent timescales" presented by the 21 October deadline, there are no plans for additional services to be routinely available in Northern Ireland before 31 March 2020.

For example, there is no expectation that GPs will prescribe medication for early medical abortion.

Image copyright PA Media
Image caption A silent demonstration was held at Stormont over the planned change in abortion legislation

Decriminalisation

For 52 years, the law on terminations has been much more restrictive in this part of the UK than in England, Scotland and Wales.

But that is set to change if the devolved government at Stormont is not restored by 21 October.

Legislation brought in by MPs at Westminster means abortion will be decriminalised and the government will have to put in place regulations for abortion services by next April.

The change in legislation in Northern Ireland will be welcomed by many people, but many others are strongly opposed and hundreds of health professionals wrote to the Northern Ireland secretary expressing their opposition to any change.

Image caption Both an anti-abortion rally (left) and pro-choice rally attracted large crowds in Belfast city centre in September

What are the current rules on abortion in Northern Ireland?

Northern Ireland's abortion legislation is very different from the law in Great Britain.

The 1967 Abortion Act, which was introduced in England, Scotland and Wales, was never extended to Northern Ireland.

Currently, a termination is only permitted in Northern Ireland if a woman's life is at risk or if there is a risk of permanent and serious damage to her mental or physical health.

Rape, incest or diagnoses of fatal fetal abnormality - where medics believe that a baby will die before, during or shortly after birth - are not grounds for a legal abortion in Northern Ireland.

Human rights breach

Last week, the High Court in Belfast ruled that Northern Ireland's abortion law breaches the UK's human rights commitments.

The case was taken in Belfast by Sarah Ewart, who challenged the law after she was denied a termination in 2013.

Doctors said her fetus would not survive outside the womb.

She travelled to England for a termination. Since then she has led a high-profile campaign to change Northern Ireland's law in cases of fatal fetal abnormality.

Reaction

Dawn McAvoy, from Both Lives Matters, told BBC's Good Morning Ulster programme that there are "grave concerns that for the first time in Northern Ireland, children diagnosed in the womb with disabilities are going to be permitted to have their lives ended in law".

She said there was still hope that Stormont would be restored before 21 October.

"This document shows why it is seriously reckless to remove legislation without putting a pre-arranged regulatory framework in place first," she added.

Grainne Teggart, from Amnesty NI, argued that the changes to the law "cannot come quick enough".

She added: "What is very clear is that we are finally getting to a place where we will have a compassionate response to crisis pregnancy.

"This is about placing the issue where it should always have been - not a criminal justice matter but between each individual woman and her doctor."

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