Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 21 August 2014

Poots must rethink abortion rules

It is no surprise that Health Minister Edwin Poots is being criticised over his proposed guidelines on abortion in Northern Ireland. Day by day it is becoming clearer that he has erred when producing the guidelines which are due to be presented to the Assembly shortly. He has introduced an unwelcome chill factor by introducing a clause which says that medical professionals could be jailed for 10 years if they do not report an abortion they believe to be illegal.

That is going much further than required by law. Previous guidelines which were challenged by an anti-abortion group were found to conform to the law except on two points on the rights of medical professionals to object to taking part in terminations and on counselling services. Those guidelines were withdrawn three years ago and the medical profession – and women – have been left in limbo ever since.

Mr Poots should tell the public why he has decided to go for more stringent guidelines than required and whose advice he was acting on. We would hope that the minister's personal morality played no part in the drafting of the guidelines as this is an issue which transcends one man's view. Last week, Mr Poots was ruled to have acted outside the ministerial code by failing to take his ban on gay men donating blood before the Assembly. And the High Court judge said he did not have the power to keep his "irrational" lifetime ban in place.

Two recent cases – one involving a local woman who had a termination in England because of a foetal abnormality which meant the baby would not survive, and another woman expecting twins with the same condition who wants to have a termination here – highlight the seriousness of the issue.

To prevent more women having to endure such heartache and even hardship the minister should withdraw his revised guidelines and stick more closely to what has already stood up to legal scrutiny. Surely he cannot have been untouched by these heartbreaking tales and must temper his judgment.

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