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Health Minister O'Neill names experts on abortion law reform panel in Northern Ireland

By Noel McAdam

Published 27/07/2016

Health Minister Michelle O'Neill
Health Minister Michelle O'Neill

Experts and officials working on reforming Northern Ireland's abortion laws were named last night as Health Minister Michelle O'Neill moved to counter claims of secrecy.

The special panel, which has met only once so far, includes the chair of the group, chief medical officer Michael McBride, as well as chief nursing officer Charlotte McArdle, chief social services officer Sean Holland, Department of Health secondary care directorate official Jackie Johnston, Hugh Widdis of the departmental solicitor's office, and Brian Grzymek and Amanda Patterson from the Department of Justice.

Official Opposition leader Mike Nesbitt previously slammed secrecy around their identities as a "slap in the face" to those advocating legal changes taking account of fatal foetal abnormalities in abortions.

"Even though the panel has been established and has met, the Department of Health would not release the names of the panel members when contacted," the Ulster Unionist Party leader said.

"Further, there is no formal mechanism for people to input their views to the panel. What a slap in the face to those seeking to take account of fatal foetal abnormalities."

His attack came as Justice Minister Claire Sugden confirmed that the working group had met for the first time.

Ms Sugden said her officials had attended the first meeting of the body on July 14.

In a written Assembly answer to Sinn Fein's Catherine Seeley, meanwhile, the Health Minister said the panel was due to report by the end of September.

"It is intended that the group will undertake its work on an outreach basis to engage with the women and families directly impacted by fatal foetal abnormality and with health care professionals with experience in this area, including the Royal Colleges," the Sinn Fein MLA explained.

"In accordance with established process, the Executive and the Health Committee needed to be informed in advance of information relating to the working group being placed into the public domain.

"Both were advised of the establishment, terms of reference and membership of the group earlier today."

Mrs O'Neill disclosed in the Assembly in June that the working group, which was due to be established in February, had still not met.

Prior to that, First Minister Arlene Foster asked the previous Health Minister, her party colleague Simon Hamilton, to establish the panel with the aim of examining the means by which cases of fatal foetal abnormalities could be dealt with. The group was due to report back by the end of June.

The row around abortion law has raged for many years, but it was brought into sharp focus two years ago through the case of Sarah Ewart.

The mum-to-be was 20 weeks' pregnant when a hospital scan failed to detect any sign of her baby's head. Afterwards, she and her husband were told the baby had anencephaly, meaning no skull had formed.

Despite the fatal abnormality, the law forced her to travel to England for an abortion.

In England, Scotland and Wales, the 1967 Abortion Act permits terminations up to 24 weeks of pregnancy on grounds that include risk to the physical wellbeing or mental health of the woman or existing children in the family.

Unlike in Northern Ireland, it also covers abnormalities that could lead to a child being seriously handicapped.

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