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Abortion guidance to be revised in Northern Ireland soon, says minister Hamilton

By Michael McHugh

Published 24/11/2015

Simon Hamilton
Simon Hamilton

Abortion guidance will be brought before the Executive shortly, the Health Minister said.

It is two years since recommendations clarifying the law on when pregnancy terminations may be performed were published.

Northern Ireland has strict laws surrounding foetal abnormalities, and doctors have signed an open letter demanding decriminalisation of abortion.

Health Minister Simon Hamilton said: "I hope to bring guidance to the Executive shortly."

Pro-life campaigners have said the criminal offence of directly and intentionally killing unborn children does not prevent healthcare professionals from directly treating any medical condition that may arise during pregnancy.

But a letter published by Amnesty International signed by 838 medical professionals from 44 countries said it prohibits healthcare providers from delivering timely, medically-indicated care in accordance with their patients' wishes. The 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland, where terminations are illegal except in circumstances where the mother's life or mental health is in grave danger.

Thousands of women leave for terminations in England every year.

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission has taken legal action to change the law to allow abortion in certain circumstances - including cases of fatal foetal abnormality and sexual crime.

Grainne Teggart, campaign manager for Amnesty International, said publication of the guidance clarifying existing law for health workers was long overdue and delay was unacceptable.

She said: "Previous draft versions of this guidance helped to instil a climate of fear amongst our medical profession."

She said it was vital laws were reformed to enable women in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities, rape and incest to access termination of pregnancy services.

Due to restrictive laws, harsh criminal penalties and a lack of guidance from the Department of Health, medical professionals fear providing lawful abortions, producing a "postcode lottery" for women trying to access abortion advice and services, a previous Amnesty report said.

This has resulted in women in certain health trust areas being unable to access termination of pregnancy services, the lobby group claimed.

Ms Teggart added: "We expect guidance to fix that problem and ensure women's rights to timely health care are upheld regardless of where they live."

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