Abortion guidelines next month
Draft abortion guidelines in Northern Ireland are to be produced by early next month, a solicitor has said.
The Department of Health is to put proposals to the ministerial Executive in Belfast by March 7, said Family Planning Association (FPA) lawyer Richard Stein.
A judicial review launched by the FPA asking the High Court to order the department to publish guidelines was due to begin on Wednesday, but an eleventh hour letter was received by the health organisation from the minister's office confirming Edwin Poots' decision.
Outside court Mr Stein said: "Having had endless prevarication, all of a sudden a matter of hours before the hearing they conceded the whole position, agreeing that they would put draft guidelines to the Executive to go out for consultation. It is another important step forward, it has broken the deadlock where ever since Minister Poots has been at the Department of Health there has been a complete freezing of the whole position."
Unlike Great Britain, abortion is only allowed in very restricted circumstances in Northern Ireland, such as to save a woman's life. Doctors could face a life prison sentence if they perform an abortion which does not meet the strict criteria. The Department of Health has said it would only issue guidance that was compatible with the law.
After a previous legal action by the FPA charity, the Department of Health at Stormont issued a 20-page document in 2009 containing guidance for health professionals on the termination of pregnancy in Northern Ireland. It was withdrawn the following year after a successful legal challenge by anti-abortion campaigners led to a ruling that sections on counselling and conscientious objection should be rewritten.
Abortion is significantly more controversial in Northern Ireland, with strong religious opposition and cross-party consensus against it unless there is serious danger to the woman. The opening of a Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast last year led to public protests and scrutiny by a committee in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
A Health Department spokeswoman said the organisation had been working diligently since 2004, and previously produced guidance that was withdrawn following a challenge in court. She said the department believed the FPA action was premature and unnecessary, noting none of its demands made has been satisfied.
She said: "The minister has consistently made clear since his appointment that he intends to produce guidance on this matter. He has engaged in lengthy and detailed deliberations with legal advisors and professional officers within the department on how to meet the requirements of the 2004 order. This involved a robust challenge process, as befits a matter of this importance to the people of Northern Ireland.
"Following his considerations, he is currently finalising a document for consideration by the Executive. The guidance will be clear on the limited circumstances under which a termination of pregnancy may be lawful."