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Q&A: Extending the Abortion Act to Northern Ireland

This Q&A page provides the O&G perspective on extending the Abortion Act to Northern Ireland. It was published by the RCOG in July 2008 to accompany the passage of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill through Parliament.

What is the current law on the provision of abortion care services in Northern Ireland?

Northern Ireland is excluded from the Abortion Act (1967) and abortions are not allowed there unless under special circumstances, such as if the woman has a serious medical or psychological condition that would jeopardise her life if the pregnancy is continued; or if a fetal abnormality is detected and this in turn threatens the life of the mother and has a serious affect on her physical or mental health.

The law in Northern Ireland relating to abortion is contained in sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 and section 25(1) of the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1945.

It is unclear at what gestations such abortions may be performed and no official abortion statistics are collected.

What is the RCOG’s current guidance on the issue?

The RCOG’s clinical guideline The Care of Women Requesting Induced Abortion is meant for doctors, nurses and healthcare providers. If the law applied in Northern Ireland, the medical profession would be encouraged to follow these guidelines. The RCOG has maintained that access to abortions should be the same across the United Kingdom.

Please explain more about the present situation in Northern Ireland

The fpa (formerly the Family Planning Association) initiated judicial proceedings against the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) in 2001, requesting that official guidance is provided for healthcare professionals in Northern Ireland. The case was lost but an appeal was won in 2004. Based on the last court ruling, the DHSSPS have been instructed to develop clinical guidelines.

Draft guidelines have been produced but not finalised. This means that to date, healthcare professionals still do not have any professional guidance on abortion.

More information on the issue is available on the fpa’s website.

What effect does this have on women requesting abortions in Northern Ireland?

This means that women from Northern Ireland seeking abortions need to travel to a country where it is legal. In 2007, 18.9% of the abortions carried out in England and Wales on the 7, 099 women from other countries were from Northern Ireland.

Policy makers must consider the potential delays which these women are subject to when obtaining an abortion. These delays increase the risk to the women – the later an abortion is carried out, the more risks are associated. There is also the issue of the added costs of travelling to a different country to have an abortion in a private clinic (women from Northern Ireland are not eligible for abortions on the NHS). It is well documented that many of these women are already in vulnerable circumstances and the extra expenses incurred, in an unfamiliar environment, are added pressures on them.

What is the RCOG’s view on the Abortion Act in Northern Ireland?

The RCOG believes that women should have access to safe abortion services across the United Kingdom but it recognises the sensitivities involved and local resistance towards the law being extended to Northern Ireland.

The DHSSPS are currently consulting on the final guidelines.

As the debate on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill takes place in Westminster, this is an opportunity for further clarification on the law for women and the medical profession in Northern Ireland.


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