Assisting lawful abortion in England 'not a crime', says DPP

The health minister has said that the issue surrounding abortion in Northern Ireland needs to be handled sensitively

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There is no criminal offence if someone assists a woman in going to England for a lawful abortion, the Director of Public Prosecutions in NI has said.

Barra McGrory made the comments after the BBC was told draft abortion guidelines had caused a "mood of fear" among medical staff.

There have been calls for clarity after women carrying babies with fatal foetal abnormalities told their stories.

Foetal abnormality is not a reason for abortion under Northern Ireland law.

Draft guidelines were published in March, but following a consultation process, revised guidelines are being brought before the Stormont Executive within weeks.

TIMELINE

  • 1967: Abortion Act applies in England, Scotland and Wales. The laws covering abortion in Northern Ireland remain the 1861 Offences against the Person Act, and the Criminal Justice act from 1945.
  • 2001: Family Planning Association begins campaign for guidelines to clarify the circumstances under which termination is permitted in Northern Ireland.
  • 2004: Court of Appeal says that the Department of Health should inquire into the provision of termination services in Northern Ireland.
  • 2009: Guidance for health professionals is published.
  • 2010: Guidelines withdrawn after legal challenge by anti-abortion campaigners.
  • February, 2013: Department of Health promises, during a high court hearing, to publish draft advice.
  • March, 2013: Draft advice out for consultation
  • August 2013: Consultation ends
  • October, 2013: Minister promises to bring revised guidelines before the Stormont Executive within weeks

Health Minister Edwin Poots has said he would meet the Public Prosecution Service about the potential prosecution of staff involved in an abortion in certain circumstances.

He said he was also taking legal advice from other sources. Mr Poots said he had work to do that needed to be handled sensitively and he would not be deflected from it.

Mr McGrory told the BBC's Nolan Show said: "There is no criminal offence of aiding and abetting, counselling or procuring someone to have what is a lawful abortion in England," he said.

"We can see no circumstances in which anyone would fall foul of the criminal law in that regard."

Mr McGrory added: "The circumstances in which you are talking, of these tragic cases of foetal abnormality, where individuals have felt it necessary to travel to England to have an abortion because of serious foetal abnormality, in those circumstances, I can envisage no situation where anyone giving advice and assistance in that regard would fall foul of the law.

"You cannot aid or abet or procure something which is not a crime in our law."

Last week, the BBC's Nolan Show highlighted the cases of two women, whose babies had fatal foetal abnormality, who were refused terminations in Northern Ireland,

Sarah Ewart travelled to England for an abortion because her baby was diagnosed with anencephaly, a severe brain abnormality.

She said the baby's skull was not formed and it was brain dead.

Another woman, Laura, who is 22 weeks pregnant with twins who are suffering from the same condition, appealed to Mr Poots to allow her to have an abortion in Northern Ireland.

FROM DRAFT GUIDELINES

  • 5.12 The question of whether it would be lawful in Northern Ireland to advocate or promote, to a pregnant woman in Northern Ireland, the termination of her pregnancy outside Northern Ireland, where that termination of pregnancy would be lawful in the place where it was to be carried out, but would not be lawful if it was being carried out in Northern Ireland, has never been considered by the courts. This is a "grey area" in which, pending clarification by the courts, the lawfulness of such conduct would have to be regarded as uncertain.
  • 5.13 On no account should anything in this guidance be taken as encouragement or approval of such conduct by the Department. Any counsellor wishing to engage in such conduct is strongly advised to take specific legal advice before doing so.

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