Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 July 2014

Time to clear up legal position on abortions

Changed times: the Marie Stopes clinic opens today in Belfast but Northern Ireland still lacks proper guidelines on abortion

The Marie Stopes clinic opened yesterday, offering medical abortions up to nine weeks, in a legal limbo. After two judicial reviews nobody can say what guidelines apply.

Edwin Poots, the health minister, talked of the difficulty of producing 'review proof' guidelines when he answered questions on the clinic earlier in the week. He also took issue with my description of the current law as a 'paper tiger.'

For Liam Gibson of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child, (SPUC), the matter is clear: "Abortion in Northern Ireland is not a medical service; it is a criminal offence." He relies on 1861 legislation which threatens life imprisonment with hard labour on anyone seeking to "procure a miscarriage" even when it is not known if the woman is pregnant.

Yet the morning after pill, arguably an early form of miscarriage, can be procured in pharmacies according to the NI Direct website.

These hormone pills operate after conception by preventing the fertilised egg being implanted. Boots pharmacists dispense their own brand for £26, without prescription.

That wasn't even envisaged in 1861. Later term abortions can be procured by referral from a local organisation to a clinic in England. You can also get medical abortions on the internet by buying the very same pills which will be administered by Marie Stopes.

Mr Poots speaks of "robust monitoring" but none of this is monitored robustly and there is no attempt at prosecution for one simple reason.

Cases would fail, just as every attempt to prosecute doctors or medical staff for carrying out abortions here has failed since 1938. Then the Bourne case set the precedent which led to the 1967 Abortion Act in Britain. In the case, which is still followed by Northern Ireland courts, a doctor was acquitted of any wrongdoing under the 1861 Act for giving an abortion to a rape victim who had threatened she would either carry out the abortion herself or commit suicide. Liam Gibson yesterday told our health correspondent that for abortions to be carried out on mental health grounds there would have to be a psychological assessment, but that is not what the court found.

Dr Bourne was a gynaecologist, not a psychiatrist. His opinion was enough. Such cases show why the law is unlikely to bite Marie Stopes unless its doctors are very foolish indeed. We have other elements of abortion law. Take the 2004 Health and Personal Social Services (General Medical Services Contracts) Regulations. They require maternity medical contractors to provide all necessary services to women "whose pregnancy has been terminated as a result of... abortion" but provides an opt out for those who have "a conscientious objection to the termination of pregnancy." The phrasing is similar to that in the 1967 UK abortion act.

Two glaring omissions in our law are any licensing arrangements for places where abortions are carried out or any requirement for a second doctor to certify that an abortion is necessary.

Such problems were swept under the carpet until Marie Stopes brought them into focus.

If it wants to exercise control the Executive must clean up this mess with proper guidelines and legislation.

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