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Northern Ireland: Threat of prosecution lifted for medical profession on abortion referrals

The threat of prosecution against the medical profession in Northern Ireland to make abortion referrals to the UK has been lifted, Amnesty International has said today.

The Director of Public Prosecutions, Barra McGrory QC, has told Amnesty that he can see no risk of criminal prosecution for NHS employees in Northern Ireland who refer women to NHS hospitals and clinics in the rest of the UK.

The question of possible prosecutions of NHS staff in Northern Ireland is central to the effectiveness of the new arrangements being put in place by the UK government to provide free abortion healthcare to women from Northern Ireland in NHS hospitals in England and Wales.

Grainne Teggart, Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland Campaigns Manager, said:

“The threat of prosecution has long loomed over medical professionals in Northern Ireland, who have previously felt unable to refer women to other parts of the UK for abortion services for fear of criminal prosecution. This has acted as a significant barrier for women seeking to access abortion.

“The Public Prosecution Service has now stated clearly they can see no risk of criminal prosecution in these circumstances. This is hugely important and should relieve the profession of this chilling threat. This is a significant breakthrough in the fight for abortion rights here.”

The Public Prosecution Service has also clarified to Amnesty that there is no offence in Northern Ireland criminal law of ‘advocating and promoting abortion’ as suggested possible in the current guidance from the Department of Health on the termination of pregnancy, published in 2016.  

Grainne Teggart added:

“We now have clarification that no offence exists around ‘advocating or promoting abortion’ – this is a matter of DHSS policy and raises the question why it is in the guidance in the first place.

“We call on the Department of Health to urgently revise their guidance and work closely with the UK Equalities Office to ensure a clear pathway for women accessing abortion in the rest of the UK.”

Breedagh Hughes, NI Director of Royal College of Midwives, has welcomed this crucial development and echoed Amnesty’s calls for guidance from the Department of Health.

She said:

“Midwives have been operating in a climate of fear of prosecution since 2013. Women in Northern Ireland have not been getting the care and referrals to services in the UK that they really need because of this threat which we now know does not exist.

“Healthcare professionals will now be able to refer women to the rest of the UK for abortion services, confident that they will not face prosecution. This is a welcome development and will enable us to look after women who seek or need abortion services.”

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