Last night the Northern Ireland Office published new guidelines for healthcare professionals with regard to the new abortion legislation which will be imposed on NI on October 22 if the NI Executive is not restored by then.
The guidelines acknowledge that there will be an 'interim' period between October 22 and March 31 where there will be "no legal abortion framework in which services could operate in NI." During this period, only abortions for life-limiting conditions deemed fatal before, during or shortly after birth or in cases of what are described as "serious fetal anamoly" will be performed in NI on the NHS. What constitutes "serious fetal anamoly" is not specified and will come down to the interpretation of physicians. All women who request an abortion for any other reason will be funded to obtain an abortion in GB in the interim period. This includes flight costs and accommodation.
The document does spell out for healthcare professionals the extent of their right to conscientious objection. In line with GB, this is a narrow right which only applies to those acting in a "hands-on" capacity with regard to performing abortions.
The document openly admits the taking of abortion pills will be legal in NI during the interim period. While the guidelines don't say this, there is no legal restriction during the interim period on where these pills can be taken and there are no notification requirements in place for abortions which may take place outside of the NHS (whether at home or in a private clinic). While it points to the Human Medicines Regulations, which make it illegal to sell prescription medications, this regulation to our knowledge has never been enforced in NI previously with regard to abortion pills.
The major takeaway from these guidelines is simply this- they reflect just how bad this new law really is. They are the product of a badly thought through and poorly drafted piece of legislation which was rushed through Parliament without any consultation whatsoever with the people who actually live here and are impacted by this law.
NI is going to see abortion on request for any reason up to the point at which an unborn baby is capable of being born alive. This will only fully come in to play within NI itself on the NHS beyond March 31 2020. For us, this is a tragedy. There is only way to avoid this fate and this is the restoration of the Executive. We implore our political leaders to pull out all the stops in the short time remaining. The stakes could not be higher.
By Mark Baillie, CARE NI Policy Officer