Belfast Telegraph

Stormont abortion report recommends change in law in Northern Ireland

By Jonathan Bell

A key report on the reform of abortion legislation in Northern Ireland is to recommend a change in the law.

The Department of Health and Department of Justice have released the working group on fatal fetal abnormality's report from 2016.

Both departments said the decision was taken to publish the report given the ongoing absence of ministers saying it was in line with Freedom of Information legislation and in the public interest. Previously they said the publication was delayed publication until power-sharing was restored and politicians could consider the report.

Given there was no time-frame for the restoration of the Executive the departments said the need to preserve time and space for ministers to consider the findings "no longer carries sufficient weight to balance the public interest in favour of continuing to delay release of the information contained within the report".

The report recommends the law should be changed “to provide for termination of pregnancy where the abnormality is of such a nature as to be likely to cause death either before birth, during birth or in the early period after birth".

It also states: "where a diagnosis has been made of such an abnormality, it is to be accepted that the continuance of such a pregnancy poses a substantial risk of serious adverse effect on a women's health and wellbeing."

The group, chaired by Northern Ireland chief medical officer Michael McBride and including senior health workers, held meetings with medical professional bodies and with women, and their families, who had experience of fatal fetal abnormalities.

On the issue of terminology and definitions, the working group report said fatal fetal abnormality "is an acceptable description of a diagnosis made, usually around 20 weeks gestation, of a fetal abnormality which will result in death in utero, at birth or shortly after birth."

It also notes that modern diagnostic resources "allow for very accurate information to be provided to women regarding the condition of the fetus and its viability".

Alliance MLA and former Justice Minister David Ford said: "The report provides full justification for the actions I took as minister to allow abortion in cases where the foetus has no prospect of a viable life.

"I believe that would have eased the trauma some women go through every year, though - of course - any such decision would have been for the individual woman based on a full medical assessment."

Other key findings in the report include:

  • Some improvements can be made to the care and support of women with a fatal fetal abnormality diagnosis through proposals to improve the standard of care under the existing legal framework;
  • Health professionals said that, in their professional opinion, retaining the existing legal constraints would continue to place an unacceptable burden on women's health and wellbeing.
  • One of the most compelling cases for change was the overall recognition by those health professionals who spoke to the group that the existing legal framework prevents them from fully meeting their duty of care to all women in this situation and therefore denies those women who wish to terminate the pregnancy, access to proper standards of health care.
  • Health professionals considered the current situation to be professionally untenable.

Mr Ford continued: "Unfortunately, the Executive blocked my proposals, which were based on firm evidence from a detailed consultation process. The question needs to be asked of how many women have suffered since I made a promise to Sarah Ewart I would try to change the law some years ago.

“While we unfortunately have no Executive currently in place to take this forward, I believe we now have irrefutable evidence of the need to legislate to allow women in Northern Ireland to access abortion in the traumatic circumstances where they are given a diagnosis a child will not survive.”

Abortion is unlawful in Northern Ireland unless it is to preserve the life of the woman, and carries a potential sentence of life imprisonment.

In 2015 a High Court judge in Belfast ruled that the current law was in breach of the ECHR in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities or where women are pregnant as a result of sexual crime.

After the Department of Justice and the Attorney General successfully appealed the ruling, the NIHRC has now taken its case to the Supreme Court.

Northern Ireland woman Sarah Ewart's first pregnancy was given a fatal foetal diagnosis, meaning she had to travel to England to terminate her pregnancy. She has campaigned for a change in the law.

The full report can be viewed here.

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