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Abortion law guidance to be published 'shortly'

Published 23/11/2015

Sarah Ewart, left, who had to travel to England to have an abortion after being told her unborn baby had no chance of survival, with Grainne Teggart from Amnesty International
Sarah Ewart, left, who had to travel to England to have an abortion after being told her unborn baby had no chance of survival, with Grainne Teggart from Amnesty International

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 d octors 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.

Mr Hamilton responded to a question from Alliance Party MLA Anna Lo.

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.

In 2013, Sarah Ewart went public about having to travel to England to access an abortion after being told her baby had no chance of survival.

Pro-life campaigners have vehemently opposed any legal changes and criticised the court action as undemocratic.

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

She said: "Previous draft versions of this guidance helped to instil a climate of fear amongst our medical profession. This document must clarify Northern Ireland law and enable clinicians to do their job without the threat of prosecution hanging over them."

She said it is vital laws are 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 across Northern Ireland, a previous Amnesty report said.

This has resulted in women in certain health trust areas, such as western and rural 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 and appropriate health care are upheld regardless of where they live in Northern Ireland."

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