Minister welcomes new abortion guidelines for Northern Ireland

Health Minister Simon Hamilton.
Health Minister Simon Hamilton.

Northern Ireland’s health minister has said new abortion guidelines should provide clarity for healthcare workers.

Simon Hamilton said he hoped the long-awaited guidance, which will be circulated among doctors, nurses and midwives, will help when dealing with difficult cases.

The DUP MLA said: “I know that this is an area of public policy where people hold differing views.

“My focus is on ensuring that health professionals who have to deal with extremely difficult cases have the clarity around the law that they have been asking me for.”

Unlike other parts of the UK, the 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland, where abortions are banned except where the life or mental health of the mother is in danger.

Anyone who performs an illegal termination could be jailed for life.

Hundreds of women travel to other parts of the UK to access abortion services every year.

Clinicians have, for years, been requesting guidance.

The issue was thrust into the spotlight in 2013 when young mother Sarah Ewart went public about having to travel to England to access a termination after being told her foetus had no chance of survival outside the womb.

Reacting to the announcement, Ms Ewart said: “New guidance may help some women, but it won’t help me and other women with fatal foetal diagnoses.

“All the guidance in the world cannot change Northern Ireland’s 19th century law and that is what is needed.”

Last year, the High Court ruled that the region’s abortion law was in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.

But a proposal to relax the law and legalise the termination of pregnancies where there is a fatal foetal abnormality was rejected by the Stormont Assembly in February.

Mr Hamilton said producing the guidance in consultation with the Department of Justice, had been difficult.

He added: “My responsibility in this area relates to ensuring that women receive the health and social care services to which they are legally entitled and that those who provide them do so in accordance with the law.

“Guidance from my department must reflect the current law in Northern Ireland. It cannot change the law.

“Producing robust guidance has proved to be a complex and time-consuming process.

“This guidance takes account of the issues raised in my department’s public consultation in 2013 on this subject and also reflects the considered opinions of health professionals working in this area. The new guidance is very much the product of the views of those working in this difficult area.”

The minister has also indicated progress on the creation of a working group set up to examine the contentious issue of fatal foetal abnormality.

He said: “The Executive has discussed this in recent weeks and I have also met with the justice minister about it. I am pleased that he and I have agreed to proceed with creating an inter-departmental working group composed of officials from both of our departments.

“Whilst work is ongoing to finalise terms of reference for the working group, we both agree that it should engage with healthcare professionals and those people directly affected by fatal foetal abnormality, and take account of recent consultation on the question of legislative change, as it goes about its important work.”