Abortion care has been decriminalised in Northern Ireland. This means women and girls can have an abortion without fear of being prosecuted and the possibility of prosecution is also lifted from healthcare professionals.
Interim guidance on abortion care takes effect from today. In this interim period from today until March, those affected will continue to travel to England for abortion care.
The legislation took effect after the 21 October deadline passed without a devolved government being re-formed.
Before, abortion was only allowed if a woman's life was at risk or there was a danger of permanent and serious damage to her physical or mental health. Section 58 and Section 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 - which made abortion a criminal offence - have been repealed.
The UK Government is expected put in place a new framework for abortion in Northern Ireland for free, safe, legal and local abortion services
Professor Lesley Regan, President of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, said:
“Today marks a historic step in a long campaign to secure safe and compassionate abortion care for women in Northern Ireland.
“During the interim period beginning today, no woman will be prosecuted for either seeking or having an abortion, and every woman who requests an abortion will now be able to access funds to travel to England. However, it is important that these services are commissioned in Northern Ireland by 31st March 2020.
“The government must now work closely with healthcare professionals to develop a future legal framework for abortion services. Any legal framework proposed should meet the expectations set by Parliament and provide access to abortion services in Northern Ireland on at least the same terms as the rest of the United Kingdom.
“The future legal framework is an opportunity to establish a first-class abortion care service, where the needs of women and their families are at the centre of the care they receive. And where healthcare professionals can care for women without fear of prosecution.
“We will review the consultation documentation once it has been published and will be responding in full.”
Dr Carolyn Bailie, a consultant obstetrician in Belfast and Chair of the Northern Ireland Committee of the RCOG, said:
“This interim guidance, which comes into effect today, is helpful in providing women and girls with safe and compassionate abortion care, and ensuring that healthcare professionals are supported with appropriate information around best practice.
“Crucially, no criminal charge will be brought against a woman seeking or having an abortion, or a healthcare professional providing care or information.
“While the final regulations will be agreed following consultation, we are working closely with colleagues in the UK to ensure the relevant training and support is available to enable our clinicians to deliver safe abortion care services within Northern Ireland.
“In addition there is a requirement for excellent sexual health education and family planning provision to help minimise the need for abortion.”
Dr Asha Kasliwal, President of the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare (FSRH), said:
“We welcome the interim guidance which should be helpful to clarify to women and healthcare professionals the level of provision of abortion care during this transition period.
“It is concerning that women will not be able to access early medical abortion in Northern Ireland during this period. The majority of abortions happen early in pregnancy, and it is crucial that women have timely access to their preferred procedure when medically appropriate.
“For this reason, we are pleased to see that the guidance provides for travel, and where needed accommodation, to be funded, so that all women from Northern Ireland can access abortion care in England no matter their income status.
“Despite being a temporary solution, this should help women access an essential reproductive health service. It is important that the Government provides all the necessary information to healthcare professionals and women without delay.
“Together with colleagues, we are considering the details of the guidance and look forward to responding to the public consultation.
“All women should be able to access safe, legal, high-quality abortion wherever they live in the UK.”
Notes to Editors
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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.
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.