Abortion: 'No criminal case in Northern Ireland' after October

By Catherine Smyth

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Unlike other parts of the UK, the 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to NI

There will be a "criminal moratorium" on abortion in NI if no devolved government is formed by 21 October.

A government report has said "no investigation may be carried out" and no criminal cases pursued under the existing law after that date.

Currently there is no statutory framework permitting lawful abortion.

It is only allowed if a woman's life is at risk or there is a danger of permanent and serious damage to her physical or mental health.

In 2016, a 21-year-old woman who brought pills online to induce a miscarriage was given a suspended prison sentence.

Last year, judgment was reserved in a judicial review brought by a woman being prosecuted for buying her then 15-year-old daughter abortion pills.

In July, MPs passed the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act, which contained a provision placing a duty on the government to regulate to provide for access to abortion in Northern Ireland.

It comes into effect if the Stormont executive is not restored by 21 October, with regulations required to be in place by the end of March 2020.

These regulations would be based on recommendations made by a UN committee - the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

On Wednesday, the Northern Ireland Office published a number of reports detailing progress on restoring devolution and other matters - including abortion law review.

It said the government's preference remained that any change on abortion - "a sensitive devolved issue" - would be taken forward by a restored executive.

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The government regards abortion in Northern Ireland as "a sensitive devolved issue"

However, it recognised there were a "range of sensitive policy issues" to be worked through to implement the CEDAW recommendations and that "much further work is required before we are in a place to deliver on this duty if it comes into effect".

"That is why officials are working to take all necessary steps between now and 21 October 2019, to ensure that, if the executive has not been restored by that date, we are ready to put in place measures for the interim period, as well as consulting and preparing the necessary regulations and other measures ready to come into effect by 31 March 2020."

Regarding a criminal moratorium, the NIO report said "careful consideration is being given now to how we manage this interim period where the criminal law in Northern Ireland falls away but services are unlikely to be widely available given the policy and delivery considerations required in the following months to implement the new framework by 31 March 2020".