Abortion: New laws come into force in Northern Ireland

Nurse and womanImage source, Science Photo Library

Significant changes to NI's abortion laws have come into force.

Terminations can be carried out in all circumstances in the first 12 weeks of a pregnancy.

After that abortions are legal in some cases - for example, there is no term limit in cases of fatal fetal abnormalities.

Robin Swann is "urgently reviewing" arrangements to allow women to access free abortion services in England, in light of the Covid-19 crisis.

Officials in Stormont are still deciding how to put the new laws into practice.

The Department of Health had intended that women could keep travelling to England in the meantime, but restrictions on travel due to coronavirus have placed the arrangement into difficulty.

There have been calls for home abortions - in some circumstances - to be permitted during the outbreak.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health told BBC News NI Mr Swann is considering the matter, but any decision will have to come from the Executive as a whole, because of the "significance and sensitivity of the issue".

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.

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

Last week, 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.

Terminations will be legal up to 12 weeks without conditions.

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

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.

Plenty of questions remain

The changes really are significant, allowing terminations in all circumstances in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and beyond that in other situations with no term limits applying in cases of fatal fetal abnormalities.

For some, the law will not go far enough. For others, it will go far beyond what they would support.

Some medical professionals have said they remain concerned about whether the clause on conscientious objection will protect them.

Aside from the ethical debate about term limits, there are also real questions about how these abortion services will work.

In order for an abortion to take place, one medical professional will be required to certify the pregnancy has not exceeded 12 weeks, or that a termination is immediately required.

Covid-19 travel restrictions

Terminations on other grounds will require the certificate to be signed by two medical professionals.

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.

It will be up to Stormont's Department of Health to implement the framework, including counselling and other support for women and girls as abortion becomes a new healthcare service in Northern Ireland.

Last year, the UK government decided to allow women in Northern Ireland to access free abortion services in England, ahead of the new framework coming into place.

It said the arrangement will continue until it is "confident that service provision in Northern Ireland is available to meet women's needs".

However travelling has been restricted due to the Covid-19 crisis.