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New guidelines on abortion will bring clarity to a difficult area, says Health Minister Simon Hamilton

By Victoria O'Hara

Published 26/03/2016

Simon Hamilton
Simon Hamilton

Abortion guidelines agreed by the Executive will make life easier for medical professionals, the Health Minister has said.

After it emerged the long-awaited guidance had finally been approved, Simon Hamilton described the process as "complex and time-consuming".

It is understood the information will be circulated to medical staff shortly.

The publication of the guidelines follows years of talks between the Department of Health, the Department of Justice and senior clinicians.

"This guidance takes account of the issues raised in my department's public consultation in 2013 and also reflects the opinions of health professionals working in this area," Mr Hamilton said.

"I know that this is an area of public policy where people hold differing views.

"My focus is on ensuring that health professionals, who have to deal with extremely difficult cases, have the clarity around the law that they have been asking me for."

The Royal College of Midwives and other groups have previously voiced serious concerns that with the lack of straightforward answers, they could face prosecution for carrying out abortions.

Currently, women in Northern Ireland are allowed a termination only in cases where there is a risk to their life or a permanent serious risk to their mental or physical health.

In a landmark judgment last December, Mr Justice Mark Horner ruled that the existing legislation breached the European Convention on Human Rights by banning terminations in cases of fatal foetal abnormality or sexual crime.

In 2013, Sarah Ewart was forced to leave Northern Ireland for a termination after being told her baby could not survive.

She said the new guidelines would be no use to her because the underlying law would still remain the same.

Yesterday, Mr Hamilton said there had been progress on the creation of a working group on abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality.

He added that he and Justice Minister David Ford agreed "it should engage with healthcare professionals and those people directly affected by fatal foetal abnormality, and take account of recent consultation on the question of legislative change as it goes about its important work".

He also said that couples directly affected by fatal foetal abnormality in Northern Ireland should be involved in the outcome of the group.

"The Executive has discussed this in recent weeks and I have also met with the Justice Minister about it," he added.

"I am pleased that Mr Ford and I have agreed to proceed with creating an inter-departmental working group composed of officials from both our departments.

"While work is ongoing to finalise terms of reference, we both agree that it should engage with professionals and those people directly affected by fatal foetal abnormality, and take account of recent consultation on the question of legislative change as it goes about its important work."

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