NI abortion: Guidelines issued as October deadline looms

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Chinnapong

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The medical profession is to receive new guidelines in anticipation of the liberalisation of the abortion law in Northern Ireland

The government has published guidance for healthcare professionals on abortion law in Northern Ireland.

The new guidelines cover the period from 22 October to 31 March 2020.

They set out what will happen following changes to the law after 21 October, if the NI Executive is not restored.

The guidance states that no criminal charges can be brought against those who have an abortion, or against health care professionals who provide and assist in an abortion.

A moratorium on criminal prosecutions will come into effect.

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The government says it is “imperative that health and social care professionals understand these changes and their duties under the law, if the duty comes into effect and the law changes”.

It also makes clear that this supersedes guidance provided by the NI Department of Health in 2016.

The government states that, given the “urgent timescales” presented by the 21 October deadline, there are no plans for additional services to be routinely available in NI before 31 March 2020.

For example. there is no expectation that GPS will prescribe medication for early medical abortion.

The UK government said it has made arrangements to support women resident in Northern Ireland wishing to access services under the existing travel scheme.

Decriminalisation

For 52 years, the law on terminations has been much more restrictive in this part of the UK than in England, Scotland and Wales.

But that is set to change if the devolved government at Stormont is not restored by 21 October.

Legislation brought in by MPs at Westminster means abortion will be decriminalised – and the government will have to put in place regulations for abortion services by next April.

The liberalisation of Northern Ireland’s abortion laws will by welcomed by many people, but many others are strongly opposed and hundreds of health professionals wrote to the Northern Ireland Secretary expressing their opposition to any change.

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Both an anti-abortion rally (left) and pro-choice rally attracted large crowds in Belfast city centre in September

What are the current rules on abortion in NI?

Northern Ireland’s abortion legislation is very different from the law in Great Britain.

The 1967 Abortion Act, which liberalised the rules in England, Scotland and Wales, was never extended to Northern Ireland.

Currently, a termination is only permitted in Northern Ireland if a woman’s life is at risk or if there is a risk of permanent and serious damage to her mental or physical health.

Rape, incest or diagnoses of fatal fetal abnormality – where medics believe that a baby will die before, during or shortly after birth – are not grounds for a legal abortion in Northern Ireland.

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