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Pressure growing on Jim Wells to publish new abortion guide

By Victoria O'Hara

Published 18/04/2015

Health Minister Jim Wells
Health Minister Jim Wells

Pressure is mounting for the Department of Health to publish "vital" revised guidelines on abortion for medical staff in Northern Ireland.

The fresh calls have been made for Health Minister Jim Wells to take action following the announcement by the Department of Justice to reform abortion laws for the first time in 70 years.

Campaigners including the Royal College of Midwives have lobbied for the long-awaited abortion guidelines for medical staff to be published to provide clarity for medical professionals faced with the prospect of prosecution.

Unlike the rest of the UK, abortion is only allowed in very restricted circumstances in Northern Ireland. The laws covering abortion in Northern Ireland are the 1861 Offences against the Person Act, and the Criminal Justice act from 1945. It is a criminal offence, which carries a life sentence.

The only exceptions are to save a woman's life, or if there is a risk of permanent and serious damage to her mental or physical health. The Department of Justice proposals would allow terminations in fatal foetal abnormality cases. Breedagh Hughes from the Royal College of Midwives said it was important the guidelines were now released.

"We have been asking the Department of Health for 11 years now for those guidelines - that is an issue," she said.

"It is frustrating in the extreme that they are unable to be given to women because the staff are afraid to say anything or do the wrong thing. That is just a disgrace. We know those in the north and east are more likely to be given information than those in the south and west."

Grainne Taggart from Amnesty International also said it was "ridiculous situation" that the guidelines had still not been published. "The Department of Health is failing on an ongoing basis to provide those guidelines," she said.

"And because there is no official government guidelines for medical professionals to follow there is a postcode lottery for women in the treatment they receive across Northern Ireland."

A DHSSPS spokesman said: "Mr Wells has indicated he intends to bring guidelines for health professionals on termination of pregnancy to the Executive within weeks."

Mr Wells has said he "will not accept" the extension of the UK's 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland.

Story so far

In 2009 guidance for health professionals over abortion was published but was withdrawn in 2010 after a legal challenge. In October 2013 Health Minister Edwin Poots said he would bring the revised guidelines before the Executive "within weeks". Health Minister Jim Wells says he has plans to bring the guidelines to the Executive "within weeks".

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