Belfast Telegraph

Experts urge Poots to reverse Northern Ireland abortion rules

By Liam Clarke

Leading legal and medical experts have urged Health Minister Edwin Poots to scrap his new guidelines on abortion and go back to ones drawn up under Michael McGimpsey, the former UUP health minister, in 2009.

The call came from Professor Jim Dornan, a leading obstetrician, Rosemary Craig, an academic lawyer at the University of Ulster, and Breedagh Hughes of the Royal College of Midwives.

Each of them spoke independently to the Belfast Telegraph yesterday. They spoke out after it emerged that women who are distressed because they are expecting children with little chance of survival after birth have been refused terminations here since the new draft guidelines were issued in March.

They are Sarah Ewart, who has already had to travel to England for an abortion at her own expense, and another woman who is planning to do so. Both were pregnant with foetuses suffering from anencephaly, a rare disease in which most of the brain and skull is absent.

Mr McGimpsey's guidelines were issued in 2009 and were subjected to judicial review by the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child, an anti-abortion group.

The judge found that they accurately reflected the law, except on two points relating to the right of medical professionals to object to taking part in an abortion and to counselling services.

"Mr Poots should have stuck to the 2009 guidelines except for the two points on which the court said they should be revised.

"That is what most clinicians expected him to do.

"If he had done that we wouldn't have this problem today," Professor Dornan said.

Referring to Ms Ewart, he said the medical profession in Northern Ireland had "50 years of dealing with people like Sarah properly and no complaints".

He said that under Northern Ireland law, which the court found was accurately reflected in the 2009 guidelines, Ms Ewart would have been offered a termination if a doctor had believed she was likely to suffer long-term mental problems.

Ms Hughes said that Mr Poots' draft guidelines had introduced a chill factor because of a new clause which said medical professionals could be jailed for 10 years if they did not report abortions which they believed to be illegal.

Mr Poots has met both families and told them he intends to put revised guidelines before the Assembly next month.


About 40 or 50 abortions are carried out in Northern Ireland each year in cases where a woman requests it and a doctor judges that completing the pregnancy would pose a serious and/or long-term threat to her physical or mental health. When he took office as Health Minister, Edwin Poots said he intended to check that all terminations were within the law. In March he issued new draft guidelines and since then two women were refused abortions.

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