Chief medical officer criticises impact of strict abortion laws on doctors caring for women with fatal foetal abnormality

Chief Medical Officer Michael McBride
Seanín Graham

NORTHERN Ireland's most senior doctor has said strict abortion laws are preventing medics from caring properly for women with fatal foetal abnormalities branding the situation an "indictment on us all".

Chief medical officer (CMO) Dr Michael McBride made the comments yesterday to a House of Commons Committee following concerns raised by North Down Independent MP Lady Sylvia Hermon about the impact of strict abortion legislation.

The high-profile medic last year chaired a working group which carried out research into pregnant women who had received a diagnosis of fatal abnormality and travelled to England for terminations, as abortions for such cases are illegal in the north.

"I met many women who had travelled to certain parts of the UK who had experience that was far from satisfactory...and sometimes horrendous. They very courageously shared their stories with us," he told the Northern Ireland Affairs committee.

The CMO-led team also interviewed obstetricians and other healthcare professionals for their research, which was commissioned by previous Stormont justice and health ministers.

Released in April this year due to 'public interest' - despite being ordered two years earlier - the influential working group recommended that that the law needed to change.

Dr McBride said yesterday that the obstetricians he met "felt they could not fulfil their duty of care to their patients" due to the stringent legislation.

He added: "For a doctor to say they cannot fulfil their duty of care to an individual woman as a consequence of the law in any jurisdiction I think is an indictment of all of us.

"That's why we clearly then as a working team recommended to the justice minister and the health minister a change in the law - unfortunately the executive fell before that could be considered".

Lady Syliva Hermon pressed the CMO on why there has been no progress following an important report, to which he said "no progress" can be made on the issue in the absence of ministers.

During the session, Dr McBride was also grilled on the absence of a cancer strategy and suicide strategy in the north.

The CMO said he didn't think strategies for cancer "on their own" improved cancer outcomes or prevented the disease, adding that the north's survival rates for four main cancers compared favourably with the rest of the UK.

He also hit out at suggestions that the absence of a suicide strategy was leading to lives being lost.

"That is factually incorrect...we have a very effective Protect Life strategy in place," he said.

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