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NI abortion: Guidelines issued as October deadline looms

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NI abortion: Guidelines issued as October deadline looms

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Medical profession to receive new guidelines in anticipation of Northern Ireland abortion law liberalization

The government published Healthcare Advice on Northern Ireland Abortion Law.

The new guidelines cover the period from October 22 to March 31, 2020.

They determined what will happen after changes to the law after October 21, if NI Executive is not restored.

The guideline states that no criminal charges can be made against those who have an abortion or against healthcare professionals who provide and assist in abortion.

The government said it has taken steps to support women living in Northern Ireland who wish to access services under the existing travel scheme.

During this period, abortions will be allowed in cases of fatal fetal abnormality.

  • Time is running out for NI abortion law
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Health professionals will receive information about funded services in England.

If a woman approaches them and is considering an abortion, they should either give the number to the Central Reservation Service in England or call the helpline on their behalf.

Also starting October 22, all women's travel and accommodation needs will be met – regardless of income.

Public consultation

Further details are also provided on conscientious objections.

The guidelines note that in England and Wales the courts have concluded that their scope is limited to participating in "practical" capacity and does not allow objections to ancillary or administrative tasks.

"In the intermediate period, anyone who has a conscientious objection to abortion may want to raise this with his employer."

He says that if they see a patient who is considering an abortion, they should follow the directions of their professional body.

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Review by Marie-Louise Connolly, Health Correspondent

What is critical about these guidelines is that they recognize that women should be aware of all the options available to them. In addition, any support and advice should be provided without fear of either party worrying about prosecution.

In fact, what the guidelines do is remove the issue of shadow abortion by leaving it open and allowing a light to be shed on an extremely emotive and controversial issue.

Will they remove all the stigma? Absolutely not.

As Sarah Ewart described last week out of court, nobody wakes up willingly or unwilling to break up.

Some details have not yet been detailed. For example, if a woman or girl needs to be accompanied, will that person's expenses also be covered?

How should this information or guidance be shared among the public?

Although the guidelines have been discreetly left in the public domain – some will respond much more robustly, with many people publicly shocked and dismayed at what is about to become legal in just two weeks.

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Sarah Ewart led a high-level campaign to change NI law in cases of fatal fetal abnormality

The guidance recognizes that some women may continue to buy medical abortion pills online.

Because these are prescription only, their sale and supply remain illegal, but women "may seek medical attention from NI."

Health professionals, says the guidance, will not have a duty to report a crime.

It also states that a public consultation on the proposed legal framework for Northern Ireland will open on or shortly after 22 October.

The government said it is "imperative that health and social care professionals understand these changes and their duties under the law if the duty comes into force and the law changes."

It also makes clear that this replaces the guidance provided by the NI Health Department in 2016.

Given the "urgent deadlines" submitted by October 21, the government states, there are no plans for additional services to be routinely available from NI before March 31, 2020.

For example, doctors are not expected to prescribe drugs for early medical abortion.

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A silent demonstration was held in Stormont about the planned change in abortion legislation.

Decriminalization

For 52 years, the termination law has been much more restrictive in this part of the United Kingdom than in England, Scotland and Wales.

But that should change if Stormont's deconcentrated government is not restored by October 21.

Legislation brought by MPs in Westminster means that abortion will be decriminalized – and the government will have to establish abortion services regulations by next April.

The change in legislation in Northern Ireland will be welcomed by many people, but many others are strongly opposed and hundreds of health professionals have written to the Northern Ireland Secretary expressing their opposition to any change.

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Both an anti-abortion (left) and a pro-choice demonstration drew large crowds in Belfast's city center in September.

What are the current rules on abortion in NI?

Northern Ireland's abortion legislation is very different from Britain's law.

The 1967 Abortion Act, introduced in England, Scotland and Wales, was never extended to Northern Ireland.

Termination is currently only permitted in Northern Ireland if a woman's life is at risk or if there is a risk of permanent and serious damage to her mental or physical health.

Rape, incest or diagnosis of fatal fetal abnormality – where doctors believe a baby will die before, during or shortly after birth – are not grounds for legal abortion in Northern Ireland.

Human rights violation

Last week, the Belfast Supreme Court ruled that Northern Ireland's abortion law violates the UK's human rights commitments.

The case was brought to Belfast by Sarah Ewart, who challenged the law after she was denied termination in 2013.

Doctors said her fetus would not survive outside the womb.

She traveled to England for a breakup. Since then, she has led a high-level campaign to change Northern Ireland law in cases of fatal fetal abnormality.

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