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Campaigners clash over Northern Ireland abortion laws

Published 20/11/2015

Amnesty International published an open letter to the Government in which doctors, midwives and healthcare professionals called for decriminalisation of terminations (Amnesty International/PA)
Amnesty International published an open letter to the Government in which doctors, midwives and healthcare professionals called for decriminalisation of terminations (Amnesty International/PA)

Medics should be "ashamed" of signing an open letter demanding the decriminalisation of abortion, a well known pro-life campaigner has said.

Bernadette Smyth, from Precious Life - the largest anti abortion group in Northern Ireland, also rejected claims that women's lives are being put at risk by the region's strict laws banning terminations.

She said: "There is absolutely no evidence that women's lives are put at risk by the illegality of abortion in Northern Ireland.

"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."

The letter has been published by Amnesty International and is signed by 838 medical professionals from 44 countries across the world.

It states: "The criminalisation of abortion prevents healthcare providers from delivering timely, medically indicated care in accordance with their patients' wishes.

"It impedes and disregards sound medical judgment and can undermine the professional duty of care and confidentiality that doctors bear towards their patients."

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 the region to access pregnancy terminations every year.

Breedagh Hughes, from the Royal College of Midwives, said: "Every day midwives and medics work with women, often with planned and wanted pregnancies, who have received devastating news that their foetus will not survive. It is immensely frustrating that we are not able to give them the care they require.

"Laws in Ireland and Northern Ireland do not stop women seeking or needing abortions, instead it forces them to travel to England or elsewhere to receive the healthcare or resort to desperate, often dangerous, measures."

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.

The contentious issue hit the headlines in 2013 when 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 have criticised the court action as undemocratic.

Ms Smyth added: "A bortion is not a 'healthcare' issue or 'human rights' issue. Abortion is in fact no more than the intentional killing of the most defenceless and vulnerable human being, the unborn child.

"Not one international human rights body or convention recognises a right to abortion. It is time Amnesty put its power and money into saving innocent lives, not destroying them."

According to Amnesty, 40% of women of childbearing age live in countries where terminations are banned, highly restricted or otherwise inaccessible. Unsafe abortions account for 47,000 women and girls' deaths every year, the organisation said.

Grainne Teggart, manager of Amnesty's My Body My Rights campaign, said the law was an "embarrassment".

She said: "The message from hundreds of health professionals worldwide is clear; women are not criminals and criminalising abortion endangers their health and, in some cases, their lives.

"Medical professionals need space to make clinical decisions without the threat of prosecution. It's time governments treated abortion for what it is; a healthcare and human rights issue, not a criminal act."

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