Revised abortion guidelines pending
Revised guidelines on abortion are to be brought before the Northern Ireland Executive within weeks, it has been revealed.
The move comes after Health Minister Edwin Poots met two pregnant women whose babies suffered such severe abnormalities that they could not survive after birth.
Both women were refused terminations because current legislation in Northern Ireland only permits abortion in very restricted circumstances that do not include lethal foetal abnormality.
A Department of Health spokesman said: "Consultation on draft guidelines published earlier this year has closed. A number of submissions to the consultation have highlighted the issue of lethal foetal abnormality and incompatibility with life.
"Full consideration is currently been given to the all consultation submissions and the minister intends to bring a final version to the Executive for its consideration at an early stage, ideally within a number of weeks."
The new guidance cannot change the law but could provide clarity for medical professionals faced with the prospect of prosecution.
However, pro life campaigners have vowed to challenge any changes through the courts.
"We are prepared to take a case to the High Court if the guidelines do not uphold the rights of the unborn child," said Bernie Smyth from Precious Life.
"There should be no procedures carried out in Northern Ireland that will harm an unborn child. We will not be silenced."
The issue of fatal foetal abnormality is not a reason for a legal abortion in Northern Ireland. It gained prominence after the two women went public last week.
Sarah Ewart said she was forced to travel to London for a termination after her baby was diagnosed with the anencephaly, a severe brain anomaly which meant the skull had not developed properly.
Another woman, known only as Laura, who is 22 weeks pregnant with twins suffering from the same fatal condition, has also been told she will have to fly to England for an abortion.
Northern Ireland is not covered by the 1967 Abortion Act. Every year more than 1,000 women travel from the region to clinics in England, Scotland and Wales where access to an abortion is allowed up to 24 weeks into pregnancy on grounds that include abnormalities which could lead to a child being seriously disabled.
Mr Poots has also said he would also meet the director of the Public Prosecution Service over potential prosecution of staff involved in an abortion procedure.
Breedagh Hughes from the Royal College of Midwives said there was a culture of fear among medics in maternity units at present.
"Staff are very jittery," she said. "Draft guidance issued earlier this year was very heavy on law, particularly penalties and 10 year imprisonments. The chill factor that it has created is immeasurable.
"Two years ago women like Sarah Ewart would have been offered a termination under the NHS but there is now a culture of fear among staff."
Ms Hughes said she hoped new guidance to be presented to the Stormont Executive within weeks would provide clarity for staff working at the coal face.
"We would be happy to work with the Department of Health to develop guidance that is fit for purpose," she said.
Changes to the abortion laws in Northern Ireland are a matter for the Department of Justice.
Previously, the Justice Minister David Ford said he was committed to bringing a paper to the Northern Ireland Executive looking at issues around the termination of pregnancy.
Goretti Horgan from the pro choice organisation, Alliance for Choice claimed the minister had narrowed the law on abortion.
She said: "We hope that new guidance reflects the reality of the law rather than what the minister and anti-abortionists think it is.
"The draft guidelines narrowed the basis on which a woman in Northern Ireland can access abortions.
"By narrowing it the way that he did, the minister did actually change the law."