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New Northern Ireland abortion law 'may give health staff no choice'

Midwife voices fear for conscientious objectors if NI legislation changes

The anti-abortion March For Their Lives
The anti-abortion March For Their Lives
Allan Preston

By Allan Preston

Health workers in Northern Ireland could be left "exposed" by changes to abortion law, a lecturer in midwifery has claimed.

Debbie Duncan spent over 30 years working as a midwife in Scotland and England and now lectures at the school of nursing and midwifery at Queen's University Belfast.

She was never obliged to take part in abortions during her career as the law allowed her to conscientiously object.

Ms Duncan said she fears "too much change with no regulation" means the same protections may not apply here.

Amnesty International has rejected the claims, saying the Northern Ireland Office will introduce regulations that allow for conscientious objection.

Baroness Nuala O'Loan, a former police ombudsman, has previously called this into question by saying the Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith does not have the power to introduce the required regulations.

Abortion is currently only legal in Northern Ireland in very limited circumstances.

In July, MPs passed the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act, obligating the Government to regulate and provide access to abortion here.

This will come into effect by October 21 if Stormont is not restored, with a requirement to have the regulations in place by the end of March.

Last week thousands of protesters took to the streets as opposing abortion rallies took place in Belfast.

The pro-choice rally
The pro-choice rally

Ms Duncan said: "I think healthcare workers here could end up having to care for someone when they don't feel happy about it. I don't think there will be time to get the regulations drawn up and put in place by October, even though I'm sure there are conversations taking place.

"If the law does come in here, it needs to be done properly. It doesn't matter what your ethics or your faith is, we still need to look at this."

She continued: "The problems for the women could also be significant in terms of the care available, not just physically but also the psychological support that should be in place.

"It should be offered to women whether they go for a termination or not."

Another midwife, Jude, who didn't want to give her full name, said it was "unthinkable" she could be obliged to care for a mother but not the baby.

"The new legislation could remove all meaningful legal protection for the unborn child until at least viability. It's really important to be clear, this legal change is not about the hard cases we hear so much about," she said.

Grainne Teggart, Amnesty International's Northern Ireland campaign manager, said it was "simply inaccurate" to say Westminster was imposing a law the public did not want.

"All available evidence, including the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey, demonstrates that the public overwhelmingly favour change," she said. "Polls commissioned by Amnesty also show 66% of adults in Northern Ireland support Westminster legislating in absence of devolved government."

 She added that few would disagree that abortion should be decriminalised and made available including in cases where a woman's health is at risk, where there is a serious and fatal foetal abnormality and where pregnancy has resulted from rape or incest.

"We are finally reaching a point in which Northern Ireland will have a compassionate response to crisis pregnancy," she said. "The threat of prosecution has long compromised the healthcare given to women - soon medical professionals and women in Northern Ireland will be able to carry out and access these vital services without fear of prosecution.

"The Northern Ireland Office will now put in place regulations to enable free, safe, legal and local services. These regulations are expected to address conscientious objection."

The Royal College of Midwives (RCM) added it will fight to make sure healthcare workers are given the option to object in Northern Ireland.

Suzanne Tyler, executive director for services to members, said: "The RCM respects the right of midwives to hold their own views and that is why the RCM is insisting that the changes due in Northern Ireland extend to the right of conscientious objection that can be utilised by midwives in the rest of the UK to our Northern Ireland colleagues.

"No midwife need be involved in the direct provision of termination services if they have a moral or ethical objection."

She said the European Court of Human Rights and the UK Committee on Equality and Diversity ruled that Northern Ireland's ban on all abortions is discriminatory, breaches human rights, is out of date and hinders good care.

"The particular arrangements in Northern Ireland even criminalise midwives who attempt to offer and support women who wish to terminate their pregnancies," she said.

"This is fundamentally an issue of women's rights, women's rights of self-determination to make the choice that is right for them about their pregnancy, and the rights of individual midwives to opt out of providing terminations, recognising that others will step in to ensure that women receive the care they deserve."

A UK Government spokesperson said: "If Stormont is not back up and running, we have a legal duty to provide access to abortion services in Northern Ireland.

"We recognise there are many sensitive issues, such as conscientious objection, that require careful consideration.

"A period of public consultation is the right thing, to allow people in Northern Ireland to provide views on how we can best deliver the reforms."

Queen's University said new students at the school of nursing and midwifery would be kept up to date.

"The university recognises that some graduates will work in other countries and the course content reflects this by exploring national and international perspectives on key health issues, including sexual health," a spokesperson said. "Currently, medical and nursing students are educated on abortion as part of their studies.

"Medical students are taught the legal framework for abortion in the UK and Northern Ireland. The content is aligned to the national undergraduate curriculum, which is drawn up by the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, and teaching is provided in lectures, small group discussions and online."

The teaching covers the initial assessment, medical and surgical techniques, as well as dealing with complications and the after care of patients who have had a termination of pregnancy.

They added that "a knowledge of the law is essential" for nursing students working in the relevant areas.

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