Abortion law: Northern Ireland


ABORTION IN Northern Ireland is legal where “it is necessary to preserve the life of the woman or there is a risk of real and serious adverse effect on her physical or mental health, which is either long term or permanent”, according to guidelines from the North’s Department of Health. “In any other circumstances it would be unlawful to perform such an operation,” the guidelines add.

There is no gestational limit for when abortion can take place in Northern Ireland.

Foetal abnormality is not recognised as a ground for abortion in itself, although if it was found to constitute a serious threat to the physical or mental health of the woman it would be.

There is no reference to rape in the guidelines, although abortion would be permitted if it were found to constitute a serious physical or mental threat to the woman. Anyone who unlawfully performs an abortion is liable to criminal prosecution with a maximum penalty of life in prison. A person who is a “secondary party” to such a termination faces the same penalty.

Medical assessment of women aged 18 or more seeking an abortion in the North would “most appropriately” be carried out by a consultant general adult psychiatrist, according to the guidelines. A GP or consultant obstetrician “who had prior knowledge of the woman and her clinical circumstances, and who is both experienced and competent in making mental health assessment in these situations, would also be appropriate to carry out the assessment”.

For those under 18, a child and adolescent psychiatrist is deemed appropriate to make the assessment.

The guidelines say that while there is no legal right to refuse to take part in a lawful abortion, no one should compel staff who have a conscientious objection to abortion to take part in a termination. Where a doctor has a conscientious objection to abortion he or she should make arrangements where the woman can be referred to another colleague.