Northern Ireland: pathologist resignation should be ‘wake-up call’ on abortion law reform

“Horrific story of a couple having to travel to England and then return to Northern Ireland with the foetal remains in a cooler bag, is far from an isolated case.” – Patrick Corrigan

Amnesty International has called for an urgent change to Northern Ireland’s abortion laws, following reports that paediatric pathologist Dr Caroline Gannon has resigned over interventions by the attorney general on abortion laws surrounding fatal foetal abnormality. Dr Gannon's resignation leaves Northern Ireland with only one paediatric pathologist.

The BBC has reported that the final straw for Dr Gannon was having to advise a couple to use a picnic cooler bag to return their baby’s remains to Northern Ireland after they had to travel to England for an abortion as a result of Northern Ireland’s near-total abortion ban.

Northern Ireland Attorney General John Larkin has made a series of political and legal interventions in recent years in an attempt to defend the region’s restrictive abortion law, including a recent appeal against a High Court judgment which found that legislation breaches human rights law.

Patrick Corrigan, Amnesty’s Northern Ireland Programme Director, said:

“Dr Gannon’s resignation should serve as a wake-up call to the Northern Ireland Assembly which has, to date, turned its back on women in Northern Ireland who require access to abortion.

“Sadly, the horrific story told by Dr Gannon, of a couple with a fatal foetal diagnosis for their pregnancy having to travel to England and then return to Northern Ireland with the foetal remains in a cooler bag, is far from an isolated case.

“Amnesty is aware of a great many women and couples who have been forced to travel to England to access abortion and then transport the foetal remains back home for a proper burial or post mortem.

“Many medical professionals in Northern Ireland are faced with similar ethical dilemmas to Dr Gannon, having to work within a legal regime that flouts the rights of their pregnant patients and threatens both patient and medic with criminal prosecution.

“In 2015 the High Court found that Northern Ireland’s abortion law violates the human rights of women. It is inhuman and degrading to deny abortion to women whose pregnancy has a fatal foetal impairment or where it has been a result of rape or incest. It is a daily human rights abuse and it needs to end.”

Over 800 women and girls from Northern Ireland are known to travel to England or elsewhere every year to access abortions. The figure may be much higher, as not all women give their home addresses to clinics. In addition, an unknown number of women end their pregnancies by sourcing abortion pills online.

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