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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
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 …
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.
↵(See, for example, the last edition at Wilson C, Brannan S, Sheather JC, et al Ethics briefing Journal of Medical Ethics 2019;45:684–686.)
↵Northern Ireland Office. Guidance for healthcare professionals in Northern Ireland on abortion law and terminations of pregnancy in the period 22 October 2019 to 31 March 2020 in relation to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019. Available at https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/837166/Guidance_for_the_medical_profession_in_Northern_Ireland.pdf (accessed on 28 October 2019)
↵More information available at www.gov.uk/government/news/central-booking-system-for-ni-women-seeking-an-abortion-in-england (accessed on 28 October 2019)
↵ [Judiciary NI. Judicial Communications Office, 1 Thursday 3 October 2019 ‘COURT DELIVERS ABORTION LEGISLATION Judgement: Summary of Judgement’. Available at https://judiciaryni.uk/judicial-decisions/summary-judgment-court-delivers-abortion-legislation-judgment (accessed on 28 October 2019).
↵ [‘Detained. How the US built the world’s largest detention centre.’ Guardian online. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/sep/24/detained-us-largest-immigrant-detention-trump. Accessed 29 October 2019.
↵‘Help’: photos from US migrant detention centres reveal despair and overcrowding as people go a month without showers.’ Independent Online. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/homeland-security-rio-grande-valley-migrants-detention-centre-a8985271.html. Accessed 29 October 2019.
↵‘Migrant children held in Texas facility need access to doctors, says attorney. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/jul/08/migrant-children-detention-center-texas-attorney-health-crisis. Accessed 29 Oct 2019.
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