Change to North’s abortion laws recommended by working group
Report supports alowing terminations in cases of fatal foetal abnormality
A justice and health working group has recommended a change to Northern Ireland’s abortion laws to allow terminations in cases of fatal foetal abnormality. File photograph: Getty Images
A justice and health working group has recommended a change to Northern Ireland’s abortion laws to allow terminations in cases of fatal foetal abnormality.
A report, published on Wednesday following a Freedom of Information request, was commissioned in 2016 by the then Stormont health and justice ministers, with a view to informing Executive policy deliberations.
This came after the then sitting Assembly voted against legislating for abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities.
The working group chaired by chief medical officer Michael McBride also included chief nursing officer Charlotte McArdle; chief social services officer Seán Holland; department of health secondary care directorate Jackie Johnston; departmental solicitor’s office Hugh Widdis; and department of justice officials Brian Grzymek and Amanda Patterson.
The report from the group, which says health professionals considered the current situation to be professionally untenable, recommends “that a change is made to abortion law 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 says: “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.”
On the issue of terminology and definitions, the working group report states that 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 says modern diagnostic resources “allow for very accurate information to be provided to women regarding the condition of the fetus and its viability.”
Amnesty International NI campaign manager Grainne Teggart welcomed the publication of the report.
Need for change
“It confirms what we have already known, that a change of the law is recommended by the the departments in these circumstances,” she said.
“What the publication shows is the chief medical officer and other experts also see a need for change.”
Ms Teggart says the recommended reform, while welcome, “is not the limit of the reform we need to see, which must include the decriminalisation of abortion”.
“Abortion should be regulated through healthcare policy in the way any other health care is,” she said.
Amnesty is calling for secretary of state Karen Bradley and Westminster politicians to urgently legislate for change to “bring an end to women in NI being treated as second class citizens”.
Precious Life director Bernie Smyth believes the recommendations are “ridiculous, horrific and uncompassionate”.
“I don’t believe this is what the people of Northern Ireland want,” she said.
Meetings were held by members of the working group with medical professional bodies and women, and their families, who had experience of fatal fetal abnormalities.
Ms Smyth says Precious Life activists are concerned about who was involved in the working group, where they sought advice from, and being able to trust medical professionals diagnoses.
“It is very clear they don’t always get it right,” she said.
Precious Life is calling for better perinatal hospice care and will now lobby politicians on the outcome of the report.
Abortion law in Northern Ireland is covered by the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 and the Criminal Justice Act (NI) 1945.
At present access to abortion is only permitted if a woman’s life is at risk or there is risk to her mental or physical health that is long-term or permanent.
It is not permitted in cases of rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality.
Last year British Labour Party MP Stella Creasy proposed an amendment to the Queen’s speech calling for Northern Ireland women to have access to free abortions in England, where the 1967 Abortion Act allows for abortion up to 24 weeks.
The new provision was subsequently introduced by the British government.