Belfast Telegraph

Doctors still won't be able to refer NI women for abortions

By Staff Reporter

Northern Ireland's medical professionals will still be unable to refer pregnant women to English hospitals for terminations, despite the decision that NHS England will meet the costs of NI women having abortions there.

The Department of Health confirmed on Friday night that the law in Northern Ireland has not changed, and that existing guidelines for medical staff still apply.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health said: "The decision by the Government in Westminster to allow women from Northern Ireland to have free access to abortions on the NHS in England does not change the law in Northern Ireland.

"The 'Termination of Pregnancy Guidance for Health and Social Care Professionals' in Northern Ireland issued by the Department in March 2016 is unchanged as a result of yesterday's (Thursday) decision."

This means that GPs, clinics and other organisations like Marie Stopes International and the Family Planning Association will still be unable to organise abortion referrals to England for NI women without exposing themselves to the risk of prosecution. They can only give advice.

The pregnant woman herself must still make contact with the services in England.

Breedagh Hughes, NI Director for the Royal College of Midwives, told the Belfast Telegraph it will remain up to local women to arrange abortions themselves.

"The patient still has to make the phone call. The agencies cannot do it for her. She has to get on Google herself and find her own way to England," she said.

Describing the current situation as "ludicrous", Ms Hughes added: "Until that Act (1861 Offences Against the Person Act) is changed or repealed, assisting in procuring an abortion remains a criminal offence in Northern Ireland. So even now that the NHS in England will pay for the procedures, Northern Ireland medics still cannot refer patients for abortions because of the Victorian legislation still in force in Northern Ireland."

Meanwhile, yesterday morning a human rights body received judicial authorisation to appeal a new ruling on Northern Ireland's abortion regime to the UK's highest court. Senior judges in Belfast granted leave for a further challenge to their determination that the near-blanket ban on terminations is not unlawful.

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission will now take its case to the Supreme Court in London.

Confirmation came 24 hours after the Court of Appeal overturned a previous landmark verdict that the restrictions are incompatible with human rights legislation.

It held that the socially and morally divisive issue should be dealt with by the Stormont Assembly.

Unlike other parts of the UK, terminations are only legal within Northern Ireland to protect the woman's life or if there is a risk of serious damage to her well-being.

In 2015 a High Court judge ruled the failure to provide abortions for cases of fatal foetal abnormalities (FFAs) and to victims of rape or incest breaches private and family life entitlements under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

During the legal battle, arguments were made on behalf of Sarah Ewart - a woman from Northern Ireland who travelled to England for an abortion after learning her unborn baby had no chance of survival after birth.

The court heard claims that the almost complete ban is inhuman and discriminatory.

Counsel for the Commission insisted Mrs Ewart is a victim and argued that the court needed to step in to protect those in her position or teenage victims of family rape.

She also claimed there was hypocrisy in the case because the vast majority of women who find themselves in similar situations travel to Great Britain to have abortions.

But the Attorney General argued that only those who carry out rapes leading to pregnancies should face the consequences.

He contended that it would be wrong to punish the child for those who commit the "appalling" crimes.

The three appeal judges, Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan, Lord Justice Gillen and Lord Justice Weatherup quashed the 2015 High Court declaration on Thursday.

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