THE HIGH COURT in Belfast will today hear a request for the Department of Health Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) to issue guidelines on abortion services.
The Family Planning Association (FPA) has been fighting for 11 years to have the instructions for doctors and other professionals made available.
Abortion is legal in Northern Ireland but only under very restricted circumstances. The 1967 Abortion Act of Great Britain, which allows for more greater availability of termination services in England and Wales, was not extended to Northern Ireland.
According to the FPA, there are currently “no good practice guidelines to enable clinicians and women to interpret the law”.
“As a result the reality of when an abortion can and cannot take place is not clear.”
Guidelines were issued in 2009 but subsequently revoked because of a further legal challenge by anti-abortion campaigners.
“The current situation is unacceptable,” says acting CEO and director of Northern Ireland FPA Dr Audrey Simpson. “Neither health professionals or women know when an abortion is permissible and this has devastating effects on women’s health and well-being and the standard of care professionals are able to give them.”
The Department of Health is committed to preparing a document on the issue but only if it is “fit for purpose”, said Health Minister Edwin Poots.
In a statement, the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (Spuc) said the legal action showed the FPA’s frustration “at its own lack of success in winning support for its agenda”.
“In trying to force the Department of Health to publish guidelines the FPA is actually attempting to medicalise the issue of abortion. The law, however, is perfectly clear and requires no guidance.”
The High Court hearing is expected to last two days.
The situation echoes the situation which is unfolding south of the border, where the government is looking at legislating for the X Case to allow for abortions in certain circumstances.
An Oireachtas committee heard from a number of health professionals, including the Masters of Ireland’s maternity hospitals who for greater legal clarity on the issue of abortion in the Republic of Ireland.