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Doctors can lead case to change Northern Ireland’s highly restrictive abortion laws

BMJ 2019; 365 doi: (Published 28 June 2019) Cite this as: BMJ 2019;365:l4463
  1. Elisabeth Mahase
  1. The BMJ

The trusted voices of doctors and medical staff are the key to changing abortion laws to give women in Northern Ireland choice, according to a panel of experts.

The panel—which met in Belfast on 23 June to discuss access to safe abortions—shared their experiences of caring for women and seeing the impact of restrictive abortion laws.

In Northern Ireland, women can only have an abortion under exceptional circumstances, such as if the pregnancy poses a serious risk to their life. Women who undergo an abortion outside of these circumstances can face life in prison.

Emma Campbell, co-chair of the campaign group Alliance for Choice, said Department of Health guidelines on abortion in Northern Ireland, published in 2013, had left doctors in a “sticky situation” because the guidelines interpreted the law in a more conservative way than was previously practised.

She said: “Until 2013 there were around 80 legal abortions performed in Northern Ireland each year, and last year it was around 12. The interpretation, in terms of mental health, was that the woman will need to have been sectioned or have had at least two psychotic episodes. That is a high bar. Or it will have to be a condition which would mean her pregnancy would kill …

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