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Professional bodies call for legal framework to focus on safe abortion care in Northern Ireland

News 5 February 2020

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG), the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) and the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare (FSRH) recommend that any future legal framework for abortion care in Northern Ireland must be based on evidence-based best practice.

The professional bodies, who represent a large proportion of the workforce involved in providing abortion care across the UK, have published their responses to the proposals for a new regulatory framework for abortion services in Northern Ireland.

The organisations strongly encourage the Government to establish a legal framework which removes the barriers to abortion care and ensures the needs of girls and women are met.

The professional groups agree that restricting access to abortion care at arbitrary gestations before 24 weeks will only create barriers for women. This is particularly true for women who are most vulnerable or disadvantaged –  such as victims of domestic or sexual abuse, or who are experiencing social or economic deprivation – who, as a result of their circumstances, are more likely to present at later gestations.

Importantly, they state, there is no clinical basis for introducing a restriction at either 12 or 14 weeks, and that introducing such restrictions would present a series of difficulties, including a number of women having to travel to the rest of the UK to complete their abortions – which would represent a failed regulatory framework.

Professor Dame Lesley Regan, Chair of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists’ Abortion Taskforce, said:

“Just eight women had an abortion in Northern Ireland in 2018/19 but more than 1000 women had to endure long journeys to other parts of the UK to access abortion care, or resort to illegal purchase of abortion medication. A new framework to enable our doctors to deliver safe abortion care services within Northern Ireland cannot come soon enough.

“Northern Ireland has a unique opportunity to establish an abortion care service which is safe, legal and compassionate, which sees abortion in the context of women’s sexual and reproductive health, and which is supported by high quality education and access to contraception.

“It is our collective view that in order to provide women with the healthcare they need, abortion should be regulated like any other clinical procedure. Women and healthcare professionals should not be threatened with criminal prosecution and women should not need to travel out of their home country to access this care.

“We urge the Government to introduce a legal framework which will allow best-practice care without introducing unnecessary barriers and restrictions. We are committed to working with healthcare professionals in Northern Ireland to train and deliver these services.”

Dr Carolyn Bailie, Chair of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists’ Northern Ireland Committee, said:

“For too long women in desperate circumstances have been unable to access abortion care in Northern Ireland. In recent years, women have had to travel to access services where a diagnosis of a life-limiting fetal anomaly has been made and where women have felt unable to continue the pregnancy to term.”

“The Government now needs to introduce a legal framework compliant with the requirements of the Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) so that we can begin to provide a safe and compassionate abortion care service which serves the needs of women and girls in Northern Ireland. This must include improved sex education in schools and timely access to excellent contraceptive services.”

Karen Murray, from the Royal College of Midwives, said:

“The RCM joins the RCOG and FRSH in urging the Government to introduce a legal framework which is based on the best available evidence and does not introduce clinically unnecessary and administratively burdensome restrictions which create barriers to care. This system will not only safeguard women’s rights, in fulfilment of the requirements set out by the Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), but will also facilitate our members to provide high quality care to women in Northern Ireland.”

Dr Asha Kasliwal, President of the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare, said:

“The new framework for abortion care in Northern Ireland is the perfect opportunity to strip down the barriers to what is an essential part of sexual and reproductive healthcare. Women should be able to access safe and legal abortion care wherever they live in the UK.

“Currently, just over one quarter of women of reproductive age use contraceptives in Northern Ireland whilst more than three quarters do so in all of Britain. Sexual and reproductive healthcare services in Northern Ireland are underfunded, understaffed and are unable to offer women the full range of contraceptive methods. Waiting lists can be up to three months in some cases, especially for contraceptive care such as long-acting reversible contraceptives (LARCs), the most effective methods of contraception.

“The new framework for abortion care has the potential to build a holistic, integrated sexual and reproductive healthcare service in Northern Ireland, meeting the CEDAW’s requirement to ensure the accessibility of these services, including safe and modern contraception across different settings.

“Healthcare professionals also need the certainty to provide essential healthcare without the fear of prosecution, harassment or stigma. We look forward to working with the Department of Health to ensure the new framework is human-rights based and is fit-for-purpose for both women and healthcare professionals.”

Ends

Notes to editors

For media enquiries, please contact the RCOG press office on +44 (0)20 7045 6773 or email pressoffice@rcog.org.uk

The UK Government published a consultation paper for a legal framework for abortion services in Northern Ireland on 4 November 2019. The consultation ran for six weeks and concluded on 16 December 2019.

  • The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists’ full response can be found here.
  • The Royal College of Midwives’ full response can be found here.
  • The Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare can be found here.

About the RCOG
The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists is a medical charity that champions the provision of high quality women’s healthcare in the UK and beyond. It is dedicated to encouraging the study and advancing the science and practice of obstetrics and gynaecology. It does this through postgraduate medical education and training and the publication of clinical guidelines and reports on aspects of the specialty and service provision. www.rcog.org.uk

About the RCM

The RCM is the only trade union and professional association dedicated to serving midwifery and the whole midwifery team. We provide workplace advice and support, professional and clinical guidance and information. www.rcm.org.uk

About the FSRH

The Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare (FSRH) is the largest UK professional membership organisation working at the heart of sexual and reproductive health (SRH), supporting healthcare professionals to deliver high quality care. It works with its 15,000 members, to shape sexual reproductive health for all. It produces evidence-based clinical guidance, standards, training, qualifications and research into SRH. It also delivers conferences and publishes the journal BMJ Sexual & Reproductive Health in partnership with the BMJ. You can read more about FSRH here: www.fsrh.org