Northern Ireland abortion law changes: What do they mean?

By Marie-Louise Connolly
BBC News NI Health Correspondent

  • Published
DoctorsImage source, Chinnapong
Image caption,
No criminal charges will be brought against healthcare workers who provide a termination or assist in one

Abortion in Northern Ireland has been decriminalised, after the laws changed at midnight.

That means women and girls can terminate a pregnancy without fear of being prosecuted.

The possibility of prosecution is also lifted from healthcare workers.

In this interim period from now until March, those affected will continue to travel to England for medical terminations.

However, information can be shared and medical assistance provided for any women who have taken medication.

The Department of Health, alongside a consultation, will be working with front line medical staff who deliver information and medical services to identify agreed policies and guidelines, which will bring services into line with the rest of the UK by 1 April 2020.

While some are hailing this as a momentous change for women's human and reproductive rights, others are describing it as a "sad day" for Northern Ireland.

The law change comes after MPs at Westminster voted for a law change in July, on the basis that a Northern Ireland Executive did not return by Monday 21 October.

Before now, abortion was only allowed if a woman's life was at risk or there was a danger of permanent and serious damage to her physical or mental health.

What does it mean for the law?

Guidance issued by the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) outlines that no criminal charges can be brought against those who have an abortion or against healthcare professionals who provide a termination or assist in one.

Women and girls who require a medical abortion will continue to be financially supported to avail of services in England.

Image caption,
The law in Northern Ireland has changed after MPs voted through new Northern Ireland legislation in July

A carer's expenses will also be covered.

In the interim period, abortions in cases of "fatal or serious fetal anomaly" can be carried out in Northern Ireland up to 28 weeks.

Each will treated on a case-by-case basis, with a consultant taking into consideration the mental and physical needs of the patient.

Abortion in Northern Ireland - how it will work

  • The government states that there are no plans for additional services to be routinely available in Northern Ireland before 31 March 2020.
  • From April 2020, medical abortions will be provided on two hospital sites in NI
  • Doctors who have qualified in the past eight years or so will require training in this specialist area
  • It is understood buffer zones will be put in place around the hospital sites, meaning anyone protesting in these areas or causing obstruction could be prosecuted - NI will be among the first jurisdictions to introduce such a move
  • The Department of Health will fund this additional service, despite its current financial pressure - this including units where medical abortions will be performed and staff training to ensure all safety and quality standards are met
  • It's thought about 1,060 terminations will take place each year in Northern Ireland when the new arrangements come into place

It is likely the consultant will seek a second opinion from a colleague in those cases.

This is what happened prior to 2012, when the Department of Health introduced controversial guidelines for the management of termination of pregnancy that instilled fear among some health workers.

It is estimated about 45 women a year were diagnosed with a fatal fetal anomaly in local hospitals but then had to travel elsewhere for an abortion for fear of being prosecuted.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Every year hundreds of women cross the Irish Sea to have pregnancies terminated

So, in 2019, Northern Ireland is reverting to practices carried out in 2012.

From now, health professionals can feel free to give information about funded services in England.

Medical services cannot be provided in a GP surgery but information should.

If a woman approaches a GP and is considering an abortion, the number for the Central Booking Service in England is expected to be made available or a call can be made to the helpline on her behalf.

Is conscientious objection allowed?

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.

That's likely to be the case in Northern Ireland, unless a consultation decides differently.

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

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 Northern Ireland" if there are complications.

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

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 Department of Health in 2016.