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Ethics briefing
  1. Ruth Campbell,
  2. Sophie Brannan,
  3. Martin Davies,
  4. Veronica English,
  5. Rebecca Mussell,
  6. Julian C Sheather
  1. Medical Ethics, British Medical Association, London, UK
  1. Correspondence to Ruth Campbell, Medical Ethics, British Medical Association, London WC1H 9JP, UK; rcampbell{at}

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Abortion: Northern Ireland

Previous Ethics briefings have charted the unprecedented developments in relation to the law on abortion in Northern Ireland this year,1 resulting in legislation being passed by the UK government that ‘decriminalised’ abortion in Northern Ireland, up to the point at which a fetus ‘is capable of being born alive’, from 22 October 2019.

A new legal framework and supporting guidelines on abortion are now set to be introduced by 31 March 2020—which should reflect the recommendations in the 2018 United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women report on abortion in Northern Ireland.2

Interim guidance

In anticipation of this period between decriminalisation and the introduction of a new legal framework, on 7 October 2019 the UK government’s Northern Ireland Office published interim factual guidance for healthcare professionals on their responsibilities to patients in light of these changes.3

Among other things, the guidance notes that there are no plans for additional services to be routinely available in Northern Ireland before 31 March 2020. There will, however, be fewer restrictions on which women in Northern Ireland can access funded abortion services in England via the Central Booking Service—doctors should direct women to this service.4 If healthcare professionals do offer additional abortion services in Northern Ireland itself ‘they should do so in line with their professional competence and guidance from their professional body’.

The guidance recognises that some women may still purchase drugs that cause abortions online during this interim period. The difference now is that should a woman require medical assistance as a result, there is no obligation on healthcare professionals to report the woman to the police as abortion, in these circumstances, is not a crime. Previously, under section 5 of the Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1967 a legal duty, unique to Northern Ireland, was placed …

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