Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland abortion guidance published ahead of October deadline

The guidelines provide advice to healthcare professionals in Northern Ireland (stock photo)
The guidelines provide advice to healthcare professionals in Northern Ireland (stock photo)
Andrew Madden

By Andrew Madden

Guidance for healthcare professionals on abortion law in Northern Ireland has been published by the Government.

The guidelines set out changes to the law after October 21, when Westminster has ruled that Northern Ireland's abortion laws are to be relaxed, if the Executive is not restored by that date.

Covering the period from October 22 to March 31 2020, the guidance states that no criminal charges can be brought against those who have an abortion, or against healthcare professionals who provide or assist in such a procedure.

Healthcare professionals will also be provided with information about funded services in England and, if approached by a woman considering an abortion, they should give her the number for the Central Booking Service in England.

"From 22 October 2019, women should be informed that all travel, and where needed accommodation, will be funded and the current criteria in relation to low income or receipt of benefits will no longer be applied," the guidance adds.

At present, a termination is only permitted in Northern Ireland if a woman's life is at risk, or if there is a risk of serious damage to her mental or physical health.

The guidelines also cover the issue of conscientious objection, whereby a healthcare professional can refuse to participate in a termination if it goes against their beliefs.

"Consideration is being given to providing for conscientious objection in the new legal framework from the end of March 2020," the guidance states.

"In England and Wales, the Courts have found that the scope of conscientious objection in relation to abortion is limited to participating in a ‘hands-on’ capacity in the course of medical treatment bringing about the termination of the pregnancy, and does not include the ancillary, administrative and managerial tasks that might be associated with that treatment.

"In the interim period, anyone who has a conscientious objection to abortion may want to raise this with their employer. If they see a patient considering a termination, they should follow guidance from their professional body."

The Government said that there are no plans for additional abortion services to be available in Northern Ireland before March 31, 2020.

The purchase of abortion pills online is not affected by the changes.

"Under medicine legislation, abortion pills are prescription only medicines, the sale and supply of which is unlawful without a prescription," the guidelines state.

"Women who may require medical help following use of medical abortion pills bought on the internet will be able to seek medical assistance as needed within Northern Ireland.

"With the repeal of sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, there will be no offence to consider reporting. Health professionals will not be under any duty to report an offence."

The publication of the guidelines comes following a landmark High Court ruling that Northern Ireland's abortion laws breach the UK's human rights commitments.

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