Northern Ireland news

Northern Ireland medical staff to receive new guidance on abortion

Abortion is set to be decriminalised in the north in October

NEW abortion guidance will be issued to medical staff if terminations are made legal later this year, the Department of Health has said.

Terminations up to 24 weeks are due to be made legal in just a few months after MPs and peers voted to back moves to introduce abortion reform.

The move will see the biggest social change in Northern Ireland for decades.

Unless a power-sharing assembly returns by October 21, terminations will be decriminalised and the secretary of state must introduce regulations to provide for abortion in certain circumstances.

Abortion is illegal in Northern Ireland unless there is a serious risk to a woman's life or health. However, women from the north can access free abortions in Britain.

The department has previously said guidance it issued in 2016 "makes it clear that health professionals may inform women of the availability of services in other jurisdictions".

Asked by The Irish News if it had made contingency plans in the event of expected abortion reforms, a spokeswoman from the department said it had followed the proposed changes "very closely".

"While the proposed changes to the legislation place duties on the secretary of state to make changes to the law governing abortion in Northern Ireland, the department will need to examine the extent to which the proposed changes would impact on provision of health and social care services here," she said.

"A change to the law would also require us to make changes to guidance for health and social care professionals."

Confusion remains over what the change in abortion legislation will mean in practice.

The law will allow terminations where there is a risk to the woman's mental or physical health, in cases of serious and fatal foetal abnormalities and if the woman has been the victim of a sexual crime including rape or incest.

Terminations are expected to be allowed up to 24 weeks, in line with Britain.

A 12-week consultation on how any new system will operate is due to begin in the autumn.

It will examine questions including if GPs can prescribe abortion pills, which hospitals will perform abortions and whether medical staff can opt out of the procedure on the grounds of conscience.

Northern Ireland Office minister Lord Duncan told the Lords last week that "we cannot compel any practitioner to act beyond their own conscience and we must make sure that is understood in the guidance that is issued thereafter".

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