Abortions 'can now be carried out' in Northern Ireland

By Jayne McCormack
BBC News NI Political Reporter

  • Published
Nurse and womanImage source, Science Photo Library
Image caption,
NI's abortion laws changed last month

Medical professionals in NI can now "terminate pregnancies lawfully", the Department of Health has said.

Last month, abortion laws changed to permit terminations up to 12 weeks, but this had not been put into practice.

Some of NI's health trusts had been told by the department not to proceed with temporary plans.

The department has now said it has received legal advice meaning abortions can be carried out at health and social care premises.

In a statement, it said it had written to the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists about the situation, after correspondence from the body expressed concern that the implementation of abortion services was being held up due to the Covid-19 crisis.

Analysis: This could well end up in court

This is a hugely significant moment for abortion services in Northern Ireland.

While the new laws took effect last week, they are now being implemented on the ground.

It will be welcome news for medical professionals who said they were ready to provide terminations, but for others this will be a step too far.

The laws were created in Westminster, not Stormont, and in recent days the DUP has not shied away from saying it wants to overturn these laws in the assembly.

Abortion is a hugely sensitive and contentious issue.

This is not likely to be the end of the matter and could well end up before the courts in some kind of legal challenge.

The department's original plan was to allow women from Northern Ireland to continue travelling to England for abortion access, until it could get a local system in place later this year.

However, the Covid-19 crisis means restrictions on travel and difficulties for women getting to and from Great Britain.

Some trusts - the Belfast, South Eastern and Northern - had agreed a temporary plan to provide services in NI so women could stay at home, but had been instructed not to proceed, pending the issue being discussed by the Northern Ireland Executive.

An advisory paper was brought by Health Minister Robin Swann to the executive's meeting on Monday, detailing the current situation and future options.

However, abortion is a sensitive issue that divides the political parties, and it is understood the parties did not reach any consensus.

On Tuesday, DUP leader Arlene Foster said NI's Attorney General John Larkin had also raised issues about the implementation of the framework that would need to be addressed by the executive.

On Thursday the Stormont Health Committee had agreed, following a vote, to write to the health minister, urging him to press ahead and put the laws into practice.

How did we get here?

Last July, MPs at Westminster voted to decriminalise abortion in Northern Ireland and create new laws.

Prior to that vote, abortion was only allowed in very limited circumstances.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Medical professionals who can perform an abortion include a doctor, a registered nurse or a registered midwife

It fell to the Northern Ireland Office to come up with a framework to oversee the provision for abortion services.

Last month, the regulations were made public for the first time and set out when and where abortions could take place, as well as who could carry them out.

Stormont's Department of Health has the responsibility to implement the new laws, but has not given a time-frame for when it expects the services to be in place.

Dr Carolyn Bailie, chairwoman of the NI Committee Royal College of Obstetricians & Gynaecologist, said: "Coronavirus has led the government to impose restrictions on travel to minimise the risk of infection."

"As healthcare professionals, we are aware of women who are seeking an abortion in very difficult circumstances, including those with an underlying medical condition who cannot travel and others in extremely vulnerable situations.

"We welcome the advice that those women can now be cared for within Northern Ireland."

What is in the new framework?

Terminations will be legal up to 12 weeks, without conditions.

A limit of 24 weeks will apply in situations where continuing the pregnancy would involve risk of injury to the woman's physical or mental health.

No time limit will apply in cases of fatal fetal abnormality, where there is a substantial risk that the fetus would die or, if born, would suffer a severe mental or physical impairment.

There will also be no time limit for an abortion if there is a risk to the life of the mother, greater than if the pregnancy is not terminated - or, the government says, "where necessary to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or girl, including in cases of immediate necessity".

Medical professionals who can perform an abortion include a doctor, a registered nurse or a registered midwife.

Conscientious objection will apply - meaning those medical professionals who do not want to participate in carrying out a termination will not be obliged to do so.

The framework makes provision for abortions to be carried out in GP premises, clinics provided by a health and social care trust and HSC hospitals.