Northern Ireland news

Abortion is now decriminalised - but what happens next?

Alliance for Choice protesters making their way to Stormont on Monday. Picture by Hugh Russell

ABORTIONS are now legal in Northern Ireland for the first time following legislation introduced at Westminster.

For decades, the north had some of the strictest abortion laws in the western world.

The procedure has now been decriminalised after the repeal of sections 58 and 59 of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act.

The change means that women who seek abortions and medical staff who help them can no longer be prosecuted.

The case against a woman prosecuted for buying abortion pills online for her then 15-year-old daughter has also been dropped.

It remains illegal to obtain drugs of any type without a prescription. But women who may need medical help after taking abortion pills can go to hospital without fear of legal action.

Women who have been given a serious or fatal foetal diagnosis can now also ask to terminate their pregnancies, although this is expected to be decided on a case by case basis.

However, wider abortion services will not be available until the completion of a public consultation.

The consultation on a proposed legal framework for the north will open shortly, the Northern Ireland Office has said.

It is likely to cover how far into a pregnancy a woman can access a termination and how an abortion service will work in practice, including which hospitals will perform the procedure.

Following an analysis of responses to the consultation, new abortion laws will be drawn up by March 31. The new law is expected to cover medical staff who have a conscientious objection to abortion.

Women seeking an abortion in the period between today and March 31 can telephone a central booking service on 0333 234 2184 that will be run by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service.

All travel costs to England will now be paid for by the British government, without any means-testing. Depending on clinical need, the government may also cover a woman's overnight accommodation and the travel and overnight accommodation of a companion.

Guidance issued by the NIO earlier this month aimed to clarify the law for medical staff until new regulations are introduced.

Only 12 abortions were performed in hospitals in Northern Ireland in 2017/18 under the previous law.

However, last year 1,053 women travelled to England from Northern Ireland for abortions funded by the UK government.

Following repeal of part of the 1861 act, the north will still be covered by the 1945 Criminal Justice Act which offers protection to foetuses over the age of 28 weeks.

Anti-abortion campaigners have said this provision will allow abortions to be carried out up to 28 weeks.

However, Northern Ireland Office minister Lord Ian Duncan has said the government can "guarantee that no abortions will be carried out over 24 weeks".

In the Republic abortions are now permitted up to 12 weeks into pregnancy. This followed a referendum removing a constitutional ban on abortion.

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