Northern Ireland minister promises guidance on abortion

BMJ 2013; 346 doi: (Published 04 March 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f1420
  1. Clare Dyer
  1. 1BMJ

A High Court challenge on abortion rights in Northern Ireland has been halted after the province’s Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety promised to put draft guidance before the province’s ministerial executive by 7 March.

The Family Planning Association launched the case at the High Court in Belfast to try to force ministers to produce guidance for doctors and women on terminations in Northern Ireland. The association, which has been campaigning for over a decade for guidance, argued that the health department was acting unlawfully in failing to produce it.

But just hours before the hearing was due to start the association received a letter from Northern Ireland’s health minister, Edwin Poots, pledging to produce a paper with draft guidance and to seek the executive’s approval to put it out for consultation.

Northern Ireland’s law on abortion is much more restrictive than the law in the rest of the United Kingdom. A termination can be performed only if the mother’s life is in danger or if there is a risk of long term or permanent damage to her mental or physical health if she continues with the pregnancy.

Official figures show that 394 abortions were carried out in Northern Ireland over a four year period ending in 2009-10, but more than 1000 women travel each year to other parts of the UK for an abortion. Critics argue that the lack of guidance creates uncertainty and makes doctors even more reluctant than they might otherwise be to carry out terminations.

Previous official guidance was issued in 2009 but was withdrawn the next year after a successful legal challenge by anti-abortion campaigners. This resulted in a ruling that sections on conscientious objection and counselling had to be redrafted.

The promise to produce new draft guidance coincides with an attempt by two members of the Northern Ireland assembly to change the law to make it illegal to perform abortions in Northern Ireland outside the NHS.

Paul Givan, of the Democratic Unionist Party, and the Social Democratic and Labour Party’s Alban Maginness have tabled a joint amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill. The move comes after the opening of the private Marie Stopes International clinic in Belfast last year.

Richard Stein of the London law firm Leigh Day & Co, which acts for the Family Planning Association, said that the amendment, which was due to be debated on Tuesday 5 March, “would fly in the face of competition law.”

He told the BMJ, “It’s been a long struggle, but I think all of the indications are that women in Northern Ireland will be in a position where their right to abortion in limited circumstances will be safeguarded and will be made clear in the next few months.”


Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f1420

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