No prosecution for Northern Ireland medical staff who refer women for abortions
Medical staff in Northern Ireland who refer women to hospitals in the rest of the UK for abortions will not face prosecution, the Director of Public Prosecutions has said.
Barra McGrory QC confirmed the position in correspondence with human rights charity Amnesty International.
Campaigners against the strict laws surrounding the procedure said the clarification was a significant breakthrough.
Grainne Teggart from Amnesty in Northern Ireland, said: "The threat of prosecution has long loomed over medical professionals in Northern Ireland, who have previously felt unable to refer women to other parts of the UK for abortion services for fear of criminal prosecution. 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 is the only part of the UK where terminations remained banned after the 1967 Abortion Act was introduced in Great Britain.
Hundreds of women have travelled elsewhere in the UK for procedures.
The UK Government recently said it was providing funding for women to access abortions free in England while administrations in Wales and Scotland have followed likewise.
Amnesty wrote to Mr McGrory about the matter after MPs in Westminster voted in June to provide free terminations at NHS hospitals in England and Wales for women who travel from Northern Ireland.
Amnesty International said medical staff in Northern Ireland feared they could face possible prosecution for making such referrals.
Ms Teggart said the question was central to the effectiveness of the new arrangements being put in place by the UK government.
Breedagh Hughes, Royal College of Midwives Director for Northern Ireland, said the clarification would enable the organisation to look after women who sought abortion services.
"Midwives and other healthcare professionals will now be able to refer women to the rest of the UK for abortion services, confident that they will not face prosecution or criminal sanctions.
"The RCM is now calling on the Department of Health in Northern Ireland to issue clear guidance on referring women for abortion to midwives and all those working in this area of healthcare."
In November 2015, the Belfast High Court ruled that Northern Ireland's near-total ban on abortion violated human rights legislation under the European Covention of Human Rights, by not permitting terminations in cases of fatal foetal abnormality or sexual crime.
The case was challenged by the Department for Justice and Northern Ireland's Attorney General John Larkin QC.
A subsequent ruling at the Court of Appeal in June 2017 did not uphold the 2015 judgment and instead ruled that it is the role of Stormont rather than local courts to decide the law.