Stormont refuses to update guidance to health workers on abortion referrals

Grainne Teggart, Northern Ireland campaign manager for Amnesty International
Brendan Hughes

STORMONT officials have refused to update guidance for health workers following the British government's decision to give Northern Ireland women free access to NHS abortions in England.

Since June, women in the north have been allowed free abortion services in England, while a similar change was introduced last month in Scotland.

The director of public prosecutions (DPP) has said there is "no risk of criminal prosecution" for health workers in Northern Ireland who refer women for abortions in Britain, and that any objections are a policy matter for the Department of Health.

However, the department has brushed off calls to update the official guidance on what healthcare staff can tell women who seek advice.

The response was in a letter to Grainne Teggart, Northern Ireland campaign manager for Amnesty International.

She urged Stormont officials to end the "climate of fear" for health professionals by updating the guidance, and to "ensure women's right to timely and appropriate healthcare is upheld".

In Northern Ireland, abortion is only permitted if the mother's life is at risk or there is a permanent or serious risk to her mental or physical health.

The Department of Health's 2016 guidance says it is "not unlawful" to inform women about abortion services in other jurisdictions, but it adds: "However, whether it is lawful to 'promote or advocate' the use of these services has not been considered by the Northern Ireland courts."

In a letter to Ms Teggart in August, DPP Barra McGrory said he sees "no risk of criminal prosecution for NHS employees" in Northern Ireland if they refer women for abortions in Britain.

He added: "The question of 'advocating or promoting' the take-up of this service is a matter of DHSS [health department] policy and not a matter for the criminal law as there is no such offence in the law of Northern Ireland."

In a subsequent letter Ms Teggart asked Richard Pengelly, permanent secretary of the health department, to update its guidance.

But Mr Pengelly said the "law on abortion in Northern Ireland has not changed" and the department's 2016 guidance "remains current".

He said the department was not yet aware of "what role, if any, is envisaged for Health and Social Care (HSC) staff working in Northern Ireland" in relation to the British government policy change.

"If it is anticipated that HSC staff will have a part to play, I can assure you that guidance will be provided to ensure that staff can continue to meet their duties and obligations in compliance with the law in Northern Ireland," he said in his letter in September.

Ms Teggart said the "landscape for healthcare professionals and women in Northern Ireland seeking abortion has significantly changed" and official guidance should reflect this.

She told The Irish News: "Amnesty has documented how the climate of fear within which the medical profession operates in Northern Ireland has been a barrier to women accessing lawful abortion services.

"We are concerned that the official government guidance continues to reinforce rather than remove that fear."

She added: "It is now vital that the Department of Health clarifies how healthcare professionals can lawfully assist women and girls in availing of the provision of free termination services.

"Amnesty is calling on the permanent secretary to urgently update guidance to reflect the UK government's significant policy change, and ensure women's right to timely and appropriate healthcare is upheld."

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