Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 28 December 2014

Editor's Viewpoint: Clarity needed on abortion guidelines

From the evidence made public it appears that the tragic death of a young woman in the Republic could have been avoided.

Her family had pressed doctors to perform an abortion but, because of the very strict rules governing the procedure there, they refused. The woman miscarried and later died. Her husband and relatives are obviously distraught and there have been calls for the law there to be relaxed.

That may be more likely in the future given the rupture in relationships between the state and the Catholic Church.

But could the same tragedy happen on this side of the border, where we also have quite draconian abortion legislation? The fact that the procedure is largely governed by laws dating back to 1861 gives a fair indication of how thinking on the issue has developed, or not. Yet even our law is less restrictive than that in the Republic. There, a termination can only be carried out if there is an immediate risk to the life of the mother. Here, an abortion is allowed if the mother's life is at immediate risk or if there is a risk to the long-term physical or mental health of the woman.

What is clear - given the recent focus on abortion following the opening of the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast - is the need for proper guidelines for health professionals. That applies equally on both sides of the border. In Northern Ireland the Department of Health is to publish guidance, but the move is taking a long time and the guidelines will probably be subjected to judicial review at the behest of pro-life campaigners.

Yet the department cannot continue to drag its feet. It is unfair to put doctors and other health professionals in the position where they have to interpret an imprecise law every time they consider performing an abortion. That, of course, largely explains why there are so few terminations in local hospitals - 123 between 2008 and 2011 - and yet more than 1,000 local women went last year to Britain for the procedure. The sooner the department acts the better, so that everyone knows exactly what the rules are.

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