A clampdown to reduce the number of abortions carried out in Northern Ireland is still planned even after new statistics revealed that they were much lower than previously thought.
Last year, the original figures were 73 “medical abortions” but a new method of recording figures shows that of these only 43 were terminated viable pregnancies.
Doctors will have to provide explanations individually for abortions, according to Jim Wells of the DUP, who is deputy chair of the Health Committee.
He said: “They will provide the explanation to the department and the minister.”
Mr Wells said this was the intention of Health Minister Edwin Poots, a DUP colleague.
He dismissed claims that this would compromise the anonymity of the 40 or so women who currently have legal abortions here every year. “There is no chance that even in a cohort of 40 or 50 abortions that you could identify anyone,” he said.
He described the Family Planning Association (FPA), who raised the concerns, as “a pro-abortion organisation who want abortion on-demand here”.
The FPA has campaigned unsuccessfully for the more permissive 1967 UK Abortion Act to be extended to Northern Ireland.
Abortion is illegal here, but is permitted to save a mother’s life or to protect her from long-term physical or mental health damage.
The new statistics were prompted by a question by Mr Wells in April. In response, the Health Minister initiated a “new recording system” in May.
The figures which it produced showed that many of the terminations recorded as “medical abortions” were carried out when the foetus was already dead, for instance due to partial miscarriage.
“Edwin is determined — even with these lower figures — to examine very carefully why exactly the child’s life was ended,” Mr Wells said.
He added that rigorous checks would be “carried out to ensure that any terminations of pregnancy that occur in Northern Ireland are in strict adherence to the guidelines issued in our legislation. From now on there will be very rigorous examination of what happened and an explanation given.”
He warned: “Abnormality of the foetus is not a reason for an abortion in Northern Ireland and neither is rape.
“The tests are very clear. They are: will the mother die or will the mother’s long term physical and mental health suffer significantly?
“Why should a child be aborted because it has Down’s syndrome, or a clubbed foot or a cleft palate?.”
The new procedures are likely to have a chilling effect on doctors who may have previously taken a mother’s word that bearing a rapist’s child or a child with severe abnormalities would impact on her mental health.
Carrying out an illegal abortion carries a potential life sentence, though in the past doctors who were charged have always been acquitted and courts are unlikely to want to challenge their medical judgment.
In a statement, Mr Poots said: “Given the clarification contained within the definitions, and following careful discussion with medical colleagues, my department has accepted that statistical information provided should in future be the subset of data for ‘termination of pregnancy’.”
Mr Wells said: “Party colleagues and I continue to have concerns around the basis on which some terminations in Northern Ireland are taking place. Recording the reasons for terminations will hopefully serve to provide a greater degree of confidence that the law is being upheld.”
The law as it stands
In Britain the 1967 Abortion Act allows abortions up to 24 weeks and after that if there is extreme foetal abnormality or the mother is likely to suffer severe mental of physical injury.
The Act does not extend to Northern Ireland where carrying out an abortion is an offence unless the pregnant woman is at immediate risk and if there is a long term or permanent risk to her physical or mental health. Two doctors must certify the procedure.
The maximum sentence for carrying out an abortion is life imprisonment though, in practice, the courts have always refused to convict a doctor.
The revised figures
Previously figures given were for “Medical Abortions” which included cases where there was no viable pregnancy at the time of the operation.
These would include cases where there had been a miscarriage after which some material had to be removed.
The figures for “termination of pregnancy” only count cases where a viable pregnancy was ended.
The latest statistics are:
- 2008/9: Medical Abortions, 71 of which Termination of Pregnancy was 44.
- 2009/10: Medical Abortions, 64 of which Termination of Pregnancy was 36.
- 2010/11: Medical Abortions, 73 of which Termination of Pregnancy was 43.
- The Family Planning Association estimates 1,343 NI women travelled to Britain for an abortion in 2008 alone.