Belfast Telegraph

Prospect of criminal moratorium looms on abortion issue in Northern Ireland

Locked gates at Stormont (Niall Carson/PA)
Locked gates at Stormont (Niall Carson/PA)
Mark Bain

By Mark Bain

There will be a "criminal moratorium" on abortion in Northern Ireland if no devolved government is formed by October 21.

On Wednesday, the Northern Ireland Office published a series of reports detailing progress on restoring devolution and other matters - including changes to the abortion laws here.

It said "no investigation may be carried out" and no criminal cases pursued under the existing law after that date.

Currently abortion is only allowed here if a woman's life is at risk or there is a danger of permanent and serious damage to her physical or mental health.

In July, MPs passed the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act, which contained a provision placing a duty on the Government to regulate to provide for access to abortion here.

It comes into effect if the Stormont Executive is not restored by October 21, with regulations to be in place by March 2020.

The report detailed that the Government's preference remained that any change on abortion, "a sensitive devolved issue", would be taken forward by a restored executive.

However, it recognised there were a "range of sensitive policy issues" to be worked through to implement the recommendations from the UN's Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and that "much further work is required before we are in a place to deliver on this duty if it comes into effect".

"That is why officials are working to take all necessary steps between now and October 21 to ensure that, if the Executive has not been restored by then, we are ready to put in place measures for the interim period, as well as consulting and preparing the necessary regulations and other measures ready to come into effect by March 31, 2020."

Regarding a criminal moratorium, the NIO report said "careful consideration is being given now to how we manage this interim period where the criminal law in Northern Ireland falls away, but services are unlikely to be widely available given the policy and delivery considerations required in the following months to implement the new framework by March 31, 2020".

In 2016, a 21-year-old woman who brought pills online to induce a miscarriage was given a suspended prison sentence.

Last year, judgment was reserved in a judicial review brought by a woman being prosecuted for buying her then 15-year-old daughter abortion pills.

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