Belfast Telegraph

Abortion advice to be considered

Northern Ireland's health department will take into account the concerns of a chief prosecutor over a controversial draft abortion guideline, a senior official said.

Proposed information to be issued by minister Edwin Poots had warned of a "grey area" over the legality of someone helping a woman to obtain a termination outside the region, such as in England.

The law is much more restrictive in Northern Ireland than elsewhere in the UK and this month two pregnant women whose babies had a fatal foetal abnormality were refused abortions.

Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Barra McGrory, who was not consulted in the drafting of the guidelines, has said it was not a crime to assist a woman to go elsewhere in the UK for a legal termination and met the minister on Friday.

Health department official Eilis McDaniel said: "He has made a public contribution, he has done that with the minister on a face-to-face basis.

"We need to take account of what he has said in how the final document is formed on that particular point."

She said it was very difficult not to agree with what he said.

"What we were attempting to do was to draw a distinction between advising and counselling on the availability of services outside the jurisdiction and effectively advocating that you go to England to have an abortion, that was why it was included in the document," the director of family and children's policy added.

The department has been attempting to agree guidance on the issue for some time but faced challenge after challenge.

"It is clearly the case that professionals do need guidance in this area and that is what we are in the process of trying to do but it is not an easy issue to actually resolve," the civil servant said.

"There are views and there are counter-views and the responsibility of the department is to take all those into account and to somehow reach a compromise position and that is what we are attempting to do."

Doctors and nurses have claimed the contentious abortion guidelines, which highlight the risk of imprisonment for breaches of the law, have created a mood of fear among healthcare professionals.

Ms McDaniel said: "It would never have been the intention of the department to intimidate or to act in a way through guidance which was considered to be aggressive."

Mr McGrory's intervention has seen Mr Poots face criticism from political rivals, notably Sinn Fein, who questioned whether the minister's guidance had been properly "legally proofed".

The DPP explained in media interviews last week that it was not a crime to advise or assist someone to do something that was legal in the place where they were doing it.

Northern Ireland is not covered by the 1967 Abortion Act that operates in the rest of the UK and terminations are only permitted where there is a serious risk to the physical or mental health of the mother.

Every year, more than 1,000 women travel from the region to clinics in England, Scotland and Wales where access to an abortion is allowed up to 24 weeks into pregnancy on grounds that include abnormalities which could lead to a child being seriously disabled.

The new draft guidelines on how to apply the law in Northern Ireland were published by the Department earlier this year and put out for public consultation.

With that process now over, Mr Poots is set to bring revised guidelines before the Stormont Executive within weeks.

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