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Ethics briefing
  1. Charlotte Wilson,
  2. Sophie Brannan,
  3. Julian C Sheather,
  4. Ruth Campbell,
  5. Veronica English,
  6. Rebecca Mussell
  1. Medical Ethics and Human Rights, British Medical Association, London, UK
  1. Correspondence to Charlotte Wilson, Medical Ethics and Human Rights, British Medical Association, London WC1H 9JP, UK; cwilson{at}

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In July 2019, Stella Creasy MP and her team succeeded in attaching an amendment to a largely administrative bill which would require the UK government to liberalise abortion laws in Northern Ireland by 21 October 2019, provided the Northern Ireland government does not resume before that date.1 The amendment succeeded in the Commons, 332 votes to 99 and later, with some adjustments, in the Lords, 182 votes to 37. The Bill received Royal Assent on 24 July 2019.

In Northern Ireland, abortion remains a criminal offence punishable by up to life imprisonment in all except exceptional circumstances, that is, where it is ‘necessary to preserve the life of the woman’ or where there is a ‘risk of serious adverse effect which is either long term or permanent’.2 The law makes no provision for women who are pregnant as a result of rape, incest or in the case of fatal fetal abnormality.

Because there is a lack of clarity around which circumstances or conditions would have a sufficiently ‘serious and long-term adverse effect’, it has been argued that the law has had a ‘chilling effect’ on service provision.3 As a result, only 13 abortions were performed in Northern Ireland in 2018/2019.4 Instead, more than 1000 women travelled from Northern Ireland to England to access legal abortion services.5

A recent review of the law in Northern Ireland concluded that this situation disadvantages women who cannot afford to or are unable to travel (eg, women who are in an abusive relationship or who do not have the requisite travel documents).3 Women are also reportedly purchasing abortifacients unlawfully online, exposing them to the risk of prosecution as well as to risks where the pills are unsafe or lead to complications.

Creasey’s amendment requires the Secretary of State for …

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  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent for publication Not required.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; internally peer reviewed.

  • The ICO regulates the General Data Protection Regulation in the UK:

  • Under the previous UK Data Protection Act 1998, the maximum fine was £500 000.

  • Under GDPR data protection regulators or authorities, such as the ICO, are termed ‘supervisory authorities’.

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