Abortion law in NI lack of clarity 'creating confusion'

By Marie-Louise Connolly
BBC News NI Health Correspondent

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Unlike other parts of the UK, the 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to NI

The government must address the lack of clarity about abortion law in Northern Ireland as it is creating confusion, fear and inequality, a report has said.

The House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee scrutinised what impact the absence of an executive was having on developing policy.

It heard from witnesses including doctors, nurses, lawyers and women who spoke from personal experience.

Anti-abortion groups have said the recommendations undermine devolution.

Unlike other parts of the UK, the 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland.

Currently, a termination is only permitted in Northern Ireland if a woman's life is at risk or if there is a risk of permanent and serious damage to her mental or physical health.

Significant developments

Northern Ireland has been without an executive since January 2017, when the governing parties - the DUP and Sinn Féin - split in a bitter row over a flawed green energy scheme.

Prime Minister Theresa May has previously said a government at Stormont should deal with the abortion issue.

Media caption,
The law on abortion in Northern Ireland explained

According to the report the absence of an executive means there is:

  • No devolved government to respond to significant developments
  • No scrutiny bodies to make sure policies are working well
  • No scrutiny of the use of UK government funds for women and girls seeking abortion in England
  • A failure to respond to international human rights obligations

The report highlights that since the Stormont government collapsed, there had been several significant developments relating to abortion. These include:

The report calls for the government to set out a timetable within the next six months so that an individual victim, such as a victim of rape or incest, does not have to take a case to court.

Committee chairwoman Maria Miller said the report "sets out action which the government must take to address" the lack of clarity.

Ms Miller said: "The situation of a woman or girl who became pregnant as a result of rape or incest having to pursue a court case highlights precisely why it should not depend on an individual victim to take a case to court.

"This must be rectified urgently."

'Hugely sensitive'

Christian Action Research and Education (Care) said abortion was a devolved matter and the report was suggesting that devolution be "bypassed".

"The issue of abortion law in Northern Ireland should be decided by the people of Northern Ireland through their elected representatives and not by MPs sitting on a Westminster committee," said Care's chief executive Nola Leach.

"There's no doubt that the issue of access to abortion where an unborn child has been diagnosed with a life-limiting condition deemed fatal before, during or shortly after birth is hugely sensitive.

"But the proper place for a discussion about this is at the assembly in Northern Ireland."

The Commons' committee also found there was uncertainty about the legality of doctors in Northern Ireland referring patients to the government-funded scheme, which provides free abortions in England.

It said there could be a conflict between healthcare professionals' duties to their patients and the law as it currently stood.

During its inquiry, the committee focused on the working of the law as it currently stands for people in Northern Ireland, and on how it relates to the UK's international obligations.

It did not set out to examine the ethical, religious and moral issues surrounding abortion.

Timeline of NI abortion law challenges

The report recommends that the Government Equalities Office should publish its legal advice on the scheme funding access for women and girls from NI to abortions in England.

It added that the Department of Health for Northern Ireland should reissue guidance for health care professionals making it clear that referring patients to the funded scheme is not unlawful.

Ms Miller said: "We heard of doctors facing a potential conflict between their duty of care to their patients and the law, and between their duty of confidentiality and the law.

"They still have not been given guidance on referring women to the UK government scheme providing free abortions in 2017.

"This must be published immediately."

Amnesty International UK and the Family Planning Association welcomed the report and called on the UK government to take immediate action.

Grainne Teggart, Amnesty International's Northern Ireland campaign manager, said: "The committee has made clear that the government is responsible for delivering urgently-needed change on abortion and calls for a timeline and framework to be set out.

"Devolution does not relieve the UK government of their obligation to protect and promote the rights of women in Northern Ireland."

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