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Abortion on request is legal in Northern Ireland from today but women will still have to wait

A medical professional can terminate a pregnancy when it has not exceeded 12 weeks with no extra legal conditions.

Image: Shutterstock

WOMEN WILL BE able to terminate a pregnancy of up to 24 weeks through the Northern Ireland health service under rules in force from today.

Abortions will be available on request up to 12 weeks, with a doctor’s note up to 24 weeks and in late pregnancy in exceptional circumstances. Regulations passed last week allow hospitals and GP surgeries in Northern Ireland to start offering terminations from 31 March, although frontline services will not actually begin for some time.

Abortion was partially decriminalised in Northern Ireland in October 2019 as a result of legislation passed by the UK parliament in London. But although women can no longer be prosecuted for terminating an early-term pregnancy, the Northern Ireland healthcare system does not routinely offer the procedure.

The Northern Ireland Office organised a consultation in late 2019 on what the exact rules for legal abortion should be, which received over 21,000 responses. Those rules have now been passed and come into force today.

They allow a medical professional to terminate a pregnancy when it has not exceeded 12 weeks, with no extra legal conditions.

That is intended to cover most cases as 86% of Northern Irish women who travel to England for an abortion do so before 12 weeks.

For pregnancies up to 24 weeks, two doctors must certify that: “the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman which is greater than if the pregnancy were terminated”.

While that may appear to be a strict test, it is phrased the same way as the law in the rest of the United Kingdom, where abortions up to 24 weeks are a formality in practice.

Beyond 24 weeks, abortions in Northern Ireland will still be possible in exceptional circumstances, including fatal fetal abnormality.

On paper, the rules are more liberal than in neighbouring jurisdictions. South of the border, abortion is only routinely available up to 12 weeks, while in Great Britain the “risk of injury” test applies even between 0 and 12 weeks.

Northern Irish medical professionals with a conscientious objection will not have to carry out abortions except in an emergency.

Hospitals, clinics and GP surgeries will have a licence to carry out abortions, while women at an early enough stage of pregnancy that they can be prescribed abortion pills will be able to take the second pill at home.

The rules now make it possible for abortion services to be provided in Northern Ireland, although they will not be available right away.

The Department of Health in Northern Ireland will be responsible for commissioning abortion service and the Northern Ireland Office says:

the intention is for service provision to be gradually introduced so that registered medical professionals can receive appropriate training and will be aware of the requirements being imposed on them.

In the meantime, women from Northern Ireland can still travel to England for publicly funded abortions, with travel and accommodation paid for.

Last year, eight women legally terminated their pregnancy in Northern Ireland, while over 1,000 travelled to England for the procedure.

Amnesty International gave a guarded welcome to the new regulations, arguing that they don’t go far enough. Gráinne Teggart, Northern Ireland Campaign Manager, said: “For over a century we’ve had a near-total ban on abortion in Northern Ireland, but finally this vital healthcare service will be an option for those experiencing a crisis pregnancy.

The health and wellbeing of women is paramount and the introduction of services must now swiftly follow. These regulations do however fall short of what is required. There is no need for early gestational limits and it’s worrying that sanctions are introduced for terminating a pregnancy outside of the regulation.

The Christian Institute’s Northern Ireland Officer Callum Webster said: “In the middle of the Covid-19 crisis when so much effort is rightly going into saving lives, it is appalling that Westminster is making it so easy to kill the unborn in Northern Ireland.

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