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Executive strikes deal on delayed guidelines for abortion

By David Young

Published 25/03/2016

Breedagh Hughes, the Northern Ireland Director of the Royal College of Midwives
Breedagh Hughes, the Northern Ireland Director of the Royal College of Midwives

Long-awaited abortion guidelines for Northern Ireland NHS staff are understood to have been finally agreed by the Executive.

The decision to publish guidance, which has not yet been revealed to the public, is understood to have been made yesterday.

However, a Stormont spokesman said last night that neither the Department of Health nor the Department of Justice (DoJ) would comment on the matter.

Health professionals told the Belfast Telegraph they were given no warning of the move.

Breedagh Hughes, the Northern Ireland Director of the Royal College of Midwives, said there had been a 12-year wait for the rules.

"The fact that nobody has had sight of it, and that it has been signed off by the Executive is a tad worrying," she added.

The law governing abortion here is different to the rest of the UK, and has led to thousands of local women travelling to England for terminations.

In a landmark judgment last December, Mr Justice Mark Horner ruled the law breached the European Convention on Human Rights by banning terminations in cases of fatal foetal abnormality (FFA) or sexual crime.

In 2013, Sarah Ewart was forced to leave Northern Ireland for a termination after being told her baby could not survive.

She said the new guidelines would be no use to her because the law would still be the same.

"It may help some women, but it won't help me and other women with FFA diagnoses," she said.

NI Green Party deputy leader Clare Bailey said that the Executive had wasted an opportunity.

"Members of the Executive should hang their heads in shame at their failure to bring clarity to the issue of abortion," she said.

"These guidelines do not take into account Justice Horner's ruling and are not human rights-compliant. There is no clarity for abortion services."

Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson gave a "cautious welcome" to the news but added that a change in the law was still needed.

It is understood a working group on abortion announced by Health Minister Simon Hamilton will now include the DoJ.

"The inclusion of the DoJ in the working group will help, as Justice Minister David Ford has consulted extensively on the issue of abortion and previously proposed to the Executive it should agree legislation to allow abortion in cases of FFA," said Mr Dickson.

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