Northern Ireland: publication of abortion guidelines - long overdue and only a first step

New guidance may help some women, but it won't help me and other women with fatal foetal diagnoses” – Sarah Ewart

Amnesty International has said it will study new draft legal guidance on abortion to be published by Northern Ireland's Department of Health and has repeated its call for urgent reform of the region’s restrictive abortion law. It has been announced today that the Northern Ireland government will finally publish the long-awaited draft guidance.

Amnesty International has long called for the publication of new guidance. Patrick Corrigan, Northern Ireland Programme Director of Amnesty International, said:

“The lack of Termination of Pregnancy Guidance has created huge uncertainty for medical professionals and the women and girls in their care. This lack of clarity on the law is further compounded by the threat of criminal sanction, which means that midwives, doctors and women themselves face the threat of life imprisonment.

“Amnesty will examine closely any new draft guidance to see if it assists health professionals in improving access to healthcare for women and girls. The new draft guidance will need to be a vast improvement on that published by the Minister’s predecessor in 2013, which sent a chill of fear through the NHS.

“However, even the best legal guidance can only clarify existing law and it is that very law which is the core problem. Northern Ireland's draconian law breaches the European Convention on Human Rights and is in need of urgent reform to ensure that women and girls can access abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality and sexual crime.”

In December last year, Belfast’s High Court ruled that Northern Ireland’s abortion law is in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights by not allowing for terminations in such circumstances.

In 2013 Sarah Ewart was forced to leave Northern Ireland for a termination after being told her baby could not survive. She insists that a change in the law is required to help her and other women in the same circumstances:

“New guidance may help some women, but it won't help me and other women with fatal foetal diagnoses.

“When I met my consultant in 2013, already with a fatal foetal diagnosis and knowing that I needed a termination, she banged her files on the desk and said: ‘I’m not going to prison for anyone.’

“All the guidance in the world cannot change Northern Ireland's nineteenth century law and that is what is needed. MLAs in the current Assembly failed to deliver that law reform. It must be an urgent priority for the next Assembly after the election on May 5th.

“I live every day knowing that I have a raised risk of a recurrence of anencephaly with any future pregnancy. If I am faced with the same diagnosis again, I do not want to be put through the trauma of having to travel again to access the type of healthcare available to women in every other part of the UK.”

It has previously been recognised by Northern Ireland’s Department of Health, under legal advice from the Departmental Solicitor’s Office, that to ensure access to abortions in such circumstances requires a change to the law.

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

“...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).”

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