Northern Ireland: no change in abortion law would be cruel betrayal of women

Amnesty International has accused Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson of being “disingenuous” in suggesting that the denial of abortions to women with fatal foetal abnormalities can be addressed by new Department of Health legal guidance, rather than a change to the region's law. A refusal to reform Northern Ireland's restrictive abortion law would be a “cruel betrayal” of women, added the organisation.

The First Minister has announced that the DUP, Northern Ireland's largest party, will not support proposed legal reform on the matter, despite advice from Department of Health lawyers indicating that only a change in the law could address the barriers to abortion for women with such pregnancies.

Grainne Teggart, Amnesty International's Northern Ireland campaigner, said:

“Peter Robinson knows full well that any new guidance from the Department of Health on the existing law cannot address a glaring gap in that law.

“His own former Health Minister told the Northern Ireland Assembly that the legal advice from the Departmental Solicitor's Office is that issuing new medical guidance does not change the options available to women in such circumstances, given Northern Ireland's existing abortion law.

“It is that draconian law which needs urgent change. Any suggestion to the contrary is disingenuous and misleading to women who want to know that their human right to health will be protected if they find themselves facing such bad news in pregnancy.

“Northern Ireland’s politicians have shirked their responsibilities to women’s health for too long. Peter Robinson needs to stop ducking the issue. He and his colleagues must join with other Executive parties to deliver meaningful change in the law for women in Northern Ireland. To do otherwise would be a cruel betrayal of women like Sarah Ewart who look to politicians to act in protection of their rights.”

Amnesty International has previously welcomed plans announced by Northern Ireland's Department of Justice to reform abortion law in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities and has called for support for the proposals from the whole Northern Ireland Executive.

Note to editors:

On December 3 2013, Health Minister Edwin Poots told the Northern Ireland Assembly:

“We are committed to publishing the guidance for health professionals on the termination of pregnancy at the earliest opportunity, although it is taking longer than I had hoped.  The number and complexity of the responses received mean that it will take more time before a paper can be brought to the Executive.  I am mindful that previous versions of guidance since 2004 have been successfully challenged in the courts, and further legal advice requested through the Departmental Solicitor’s Office (DSO) has confirmed that the revised guidelines cannot change the options available to couples who face the very difficult and emotional circumstances of lethal foetal abnormality.  Any changes around lethal foetal abnormalities would require amendments to criminal law, which is a matter for the Department of Justice (DOJ).  I have written to the Minister of Justice and other Executive colleagues on the matter.”

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