Intended for healthcare professionals

Feature Obstetrics and Gynaecology

Patients, not criminals: Northern Ireland grapples with how to provide legal abortion

BMJ 2019; 367 doi: (Published 01 November 2019) Cite this as: BMJ 2019;367:l6318
  1. Niamh Griffin, journalist
  1. Dublin, Republic of Ireland
  1. niamh.griffin21{at}

Pregnant women in the province can now have abortions in cases of severe fetal abnormality. But permitted practice in other situations won’t be clear until after a public consultation, writes Niamh Griffin

Since the decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland on 22 October,1 women have been attending doctors as patients, not as criminals, as one obstetrician put it.

Previously, abortion was available in the province in only “very narrow circumstances,”2 when a woman’s life was at risk or if she faced a permanent threat to her mental or physical health. Last year 12 such abortions were carried out.

Women with a diagnosis of severe fetal abnormality can now seek a termination in Northern Ireland. Decisions about abortions for other reasons await a consultation that will include physicians and the public. This will be the first chance for people to air their views about a change implemented by Westminster rather than locally.

Central booking service

Until 31 March 2020 most women wanting an abortion, including because of rape or incest, can travel to other parts of the UK as they do now, using a new central telephone booking service (0333 234 2184) run by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service. Terminations for Northern Irish women in Great Britain have been state funded since 2017, and just over 1000 Northern Irish women had such an abortion last year.3 Funding for travel or accommodation is no longer means tested.

It’s not yet clear whether, from 1 April 2020, abortions will be done in specialist clinics, as in England, or whether GPs could offer medical abortion, as in the Republic of Ireland.

The UK Northern Ireland Office has issued guidance for medical professionals for an interim period starting on 22 October 2019 until the end of March 2020.2 It states that women seeking an …

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