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News Extra [these Stories Appear Only On The Web] BMA annual representative meeting

Women in Ulster should have access to abortion services

BMJ 2003; 327 doi: (Published 10 July 2003) Cite this as: BMJ 2003;327:72
  1. Linda Beecham
  1. BMJ

    Representatives at the BMA's annual conference criticised the fact that women in Northern Ireland still do not have access to the same abortion facilities as women in the rest of the United Kingdom and called on the government to rectify this anomaly.

    When abortion was legalised in Britain in 1967 the Abortion Act it did not cover Northern Ireland, and since then about 40 000 women from the province have travelled to other parts of the United Kingdom for an abortion.

    Most of the abortions are carried out privately, costing between £500 and £1500. The women also had to fund their travel.

    “It is barbaric to treat anyone in this way,” Dr Tom Yerburgh from Gloucestershire told the meeting. He insisted that the debate was not about abortion itself; it was about equality of services across the United Kingdom. He said he believed that attitudes were changing and that more people favoured an extension of the law.

    The motion was endorsed, despite the misgivings of three speakers from Northern Ireland. Dr Rupert Rea pointed out that abortions were permitted in the province if, for example, there was risk of physical or psychological harm to the mother or there was a risk that the baby might be mentally handicapped.

    But as recently as June 2000 the Northern Ireland Assembly supported a motion opposing the extension of the law. Two years ago there was a postal survey among GPs, consultants in obstetrics and gynaecology, and consultants in psychiatry. There was a 40% response rate, and 71% of respondents said that they did not favour an extension of the Abortion Act to the province.

    A public health doctor, Dr Colin Hamilton, believed that the motion was unproductive because, since the introduction of devolution, Westminster politicians would not take action without political consensus in Northern Ireland.

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