Northern Ireland medical professionals who refer women to hospitals in Great Britain for abortions will not face court action, Director of Public Prosecutions Barra McGrory has revealed.
The news was welcomed by Amnesty International, whose local campaigns manager Grainne Teggart said that lifting the threat of prosecution represented a significant breakthrough “in the fight for abortion rights here”.
Her comments come after Mr McGrory told the organisation that he cannot see any risk for NHS employees who refer women to NHS hospitals and clinics in the rest of the UK.
This latest development follows an announcement by the UK Government in which it said it was providing funding for Northern Irish women to access abortions for free in England. The administrations in Wales and Scotland have done likewise.
There remained, however, a legal question over whether anyone referring a woman in Northern Ireland for an abortion would face prosecution.
Ms Teggart said the question of possible prosecutions was central to the effectiveness of the new arrangements being put in place. She welcomed the clarity provided by the DPP.
“The threat of prosecution has long loomed over medical professionals here, who previously felt unable to refer women to other parts of the UK for abortion services for fear of criminal prosecution,” she said. “This has acted as a significant barrier for women seeking to access abortion.
“The Public Prosecution Service has now stated clearly they can see no risk of criminal prosecution in these circumstances.
“This is hugely important and should relieve the profession of this chilling threat. This is a significant breakthrough in the fight for abortion rights here.”
Northern Ireland’s abortion laws are much stricter than the rest of the UK.
Abortions are only allowed here if a woman’s life is at risk or there is a permanent or serious risk to her physical or mental health. Rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormalities are not circumstances in which they can be performed legally.
Hundreds of women travel to Great Britain annually to have an abortion done privately, but have not been allowed to have them free on the NHS.
The British Pregnancy Advisory Service described the change in policy as a “landmark moment” for Northern Ireland women who, despite being UK citizens and taxpayers, had not been entitled to NHS-funded treatment.
The Public Prosecution Service has also told Amnesty that there is no offence in Northern Ireland criminal law of “advocating and promoting abortion” as suggested possible in the current guidance from the Department of Health on the termination of pregnancy, which was published in 2016.
Ms Teggart said: “This is a matter of DHSS policy and raises the question why it is in the guidance in the first place.
“We call on the Department of Health to urgently revise their guidance and work closely with the UK Equalities Office to ensure a clear pathway for women accessing abortion in the rest of the UK.”
The Royal College of Midwives (RCM) also welcomed the clarification.
Northern Ireland director Breedagh Hughes said midwives had “been operating in a climate of fear of prosecution since 2013”.
She added that women here haven’t “been getting the care and referrals to services in the UK that they really need because of this threat which we now know does not exist”.
“Healthcare professionals will now be able to refer women to the rest of the UK for abortion services, confident that they won’t face criminal sanctions,” she said.
“This is a welcome development and will enable us to look after women who seek or need abortion services.”