Government publishes guidelines ahead of abortion law change


The Government has published guidelines for medical professionals in Northern Ireland ahead of the looming decriminalisation of abortion.

Legislation passed by Westminster MPs in the summer will see a change to the region’s strict abortion laws later in the month.

The law change will not be implemented if powersharing is restored at Stormont by October 21.

If devolved government is not up and running again by that date, the Government will take on the responsibility for introducing new regulations to provide greater access to abortions in the region by next April.

Northern Ireland has currently the strictest abortion regime in the UK, with terminations only permitted if the mother’s life is in danger or there is a serious risk to her physical or mental health.

Barring an unlikely resurrection of Stormont, that is set to change later this month as a consequence of a law passed by MPs at Westminster.

On Monday night, the Northern Ireland Office published guidelines for health professionals working in the region.

It relates to the interim period between decriminalisation and new regulations being implemented in the spring.

The NIO said there were no plans for abortion services being made routinely available in the region during that timeframe.

Significantly, abortions will be available for those women who have received a diagnosis of a fatal foetal abnormality.

Last week, the High Court in Belfast ruled that the current failure to provide terminations in such circumstances was in breach of the UK human rights obligations.

The Government has already announced a moratorium on criminal prosecutions during the interim.

The NIO said the guidance aimed to provide clarity on the law framing termination of pregnancy in Northern Ireland.

“It is imperative that health and social care professionals understand these changes and their responsibilities under the law, if the duty comes into effect and the law changes,” read the guidance.

It added: “The Government recognises the sensitivities of these issues and the strongly held views on all sides of the debate across Northern Ireland, as well as the importance of ensuring women’s safety and well-being, and providing as much clarity for the healthcare profession as possible.

“This guidance is intended to be a factual statement of the position in law in terms of the responsibilities of healthcare professionals to their patients ahead of the statutory changes that may come into force on 22 October 2019.”

The guidance highlighted that women in Northern Ireland can access funded abortions in England during the interim period.

It also addresses the issue of conscientious objection. It indicates that consideration will be given to providing for those who object to participating in abortions in the new legal framework.

“In the interim period, anyone who has a conscientious objection to abortion may want to raise this with their employer,” read the guidelines.

“If they see a patient considering a termination, they should follow guidance from their professional body.”

The guidance highlighted that it will continue to be illegal to sell and supply abortion pills online under medicines legislation.