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Northern Ireland doctors' fears in providing abortion aftercare blind: Call for 'one of world's most restrictive laws' to change

The Royal College of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists (RCOG) has called for Northern Ireland abortion legislation to be brought into line with the rest of the UK and Ireland describing them as the most restrictive laws in the world.

The organisation, in a significant move, said that while women were able to travel overseas to access abortions, it was in Northern Ireland that aftercare had to be provided and in most cases by professionals who had no access to notes or material on what care a woman had received.

It also said the current situation presented an unease among the medical profession over fears of criminal prosecutions.

There has been mounting pressure on the Prime Minister Theresa May to intervene after the Republic voted to repeal its abortion laws.

In the UK the Abortion Act 1967 does not extend to Northern Ireland and abortion care is only provided under very limited circumstances – when there is a significant and long term threat to a woman’s physical or mental health or when her life is in danger.

The RCOG said in 2016-17 there were 13 terminations of pregnancy in hospitals in Northern Ireland. During the same period, more than 800 women travelled from Northern Ireland to have an abortion in England, Scotland or Wales.

It said that while the number of women travelling to other parts of the UK had declined by almost a quarter in the past five years it was strongly suspected more women are buying abortion pills online, "taking them without medical supervision and risking life imprisonment".

"Doctors and other health professionals in Northern Ireland still need to care for women who have had an abortion overseas, or taken abortion pills purchased online," the organisation said in a statement.

"Delivering this post-abortion care presents challenges as health professionals rarely have access to the woman’s relevant medical notes and may not be aware of the exact circumstances.

"The legal situation also creates unease among the healthcare professionals who provide support to these women due to the threat of criminal prosecution if they fail to report to police their belief that the woman may have committed a crime by taking abortion pills purchased online."

The NHS in England provides funding for women from Northern Ireland to have abortions. The RCOG has called for the removal of criminal sanctions associated with abortion in the UK.

Dr Carolyn Bailie, a consultant obstetrician in Belfast and Chair of the Northern Ireland Committee of the RCOG, said: “The current situation means that any woman seeking an abortion has to travel to the UK without formal medical referral, and at huge personal cost both emotionally and financially.  Whilst funding for abortion in England and Scotland is a welcome temporary step, this is not an acceptable long term solution.

“Members of the Northern Ireland Committee have increasing concerns regarding the purchase of abortion-inducing medications online and the potential complications that can arise when they are not taken under medical supervision. This poses difficulties for healthcare professionals caring for women under such circumstances and places women and professionals at risk of imprisonment."

She continued: “We are aware that women, particularly those in vulnerable circumstances, are more likely to attempt to access abortion pills online, despite the recent changes in arrangements for abortion provision in England. It is also more likely that women may delay seeking help should they develop any complications from taking these pills, due to the fear of being discovered and the potential legal consequences.

“As doctors, we wish to provide compassionate and appropriate care to these women, according to their individual personal circumstances, and to be able to practise confidently, knowing that this is within the rule of law.

“Members of the Northern Ireland Committee of the RCOG will continue to meet with politicians, members of the legal profession and organisations representing women to help make progress.”

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