Northern Ireland news

Goretti Horgan: Now that abortion is legal, services need to be available across the region

Pro-choice activists marked the change in Northern Ireland's abortion laws when MLAs met at Stormont to debate the issue last October. Picture by Niall Carson/PA Wire


THE redrafted regulations governing the provision of abortion in the north of Ireland were laid at Westminster on Wednesday May 13.

These regulations have been described as "extreme". In fact, they are not at all extreme but mirror the recommendations of the Citizens' Assembly in the south in relation to the kind of abortion law that should be available.

Up to 12 weeks, there are no restrictions and one doctor can provide the pills which are used in more than four out of five abortions in Britain.

The Citizens' Assembly recommended that "the termination of pregnancy without restriction should be lawful".

They did this after hearing testimony from those who worked with the survivors of rape about the potential trauma for anyone having to explain - or worse, prove - that their pregnancy was the result of rape.

In fact, a majority of the Citizens' Assembly thought abortion should be available up to 22 weeks "without restriction", although the Dáil rejected that proposal.

Allowing abortion without restriction is even more important for rape survivors here in Northern Ireland where, under Section 5 of the 1967 Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland), failing to report a crime is an imprisonable offence.

From 12 to 24 weeks, abortion is legal if two doctors agree that continuing the pregnancy would risk injury "to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman which is greater than if the pregnancy were terminated".

Anyone who has watched Call the Midwife will know the many ways in which an otherwise healthy young woman can develop unforeseen complications in pregnancy.

During the Repeal Referendum in the south we discovered that, even with modern advances in medicine, pregnancy is still a risk to women's physical, as well as mental, health.

Of course, when we are happy to be pregnant, we accept those risks and give over our body to grow a baby. But no-one should be forced to risk their health, so there is nothing "extreme" about this regulation.

The new law allows "abortion up to birth" we are told. Well, yes, but there is nothing new about that.

Results from the NI Life and Times survey and its predecessor survey going back 30 years have found a majority of people in the north support abortion being legal for reasons of fetal impairment 

It has been the case since the 1930s that abortion is legal at any stage in pregnancy in order to save a woman's life.

But Part Three of the Regulations - 'Grounds for termination: cases with no gestational limit' - is about more than saving women's lives.

It also includes abortion for reasons of fatal fetal abnormalities and in the case of "severe fetal impairment".

What constitutes severe fetal impairment is likely to depend on each family's circumstances.

For example, if there is already a child with significant disabilities in the family, having another child with any additional needs could be too much.

This regulation does not make any judgment about the lives of disabled people because an embryo or a fetus is not a person.

Results from the NI Life and Times survey and its predecessor survey going back 30 years have found a majority of people in the north support abortion being legal for reasons of fetal impairment.

For the first time, health care professionals here are given a statutory right to conscientious objection under the Regulations.

It is true that this does not extend to "ancillary, administrative and managerial roles".

Rather, the Supreme Court has already ruled conscientious objection refers only to health care professionals "actually performing the tasks involved in the course of treatment".

Contrary to some of the myths circulating, the new regulations do not mean there is no offence committed if an unscrupulous partner puts abortion pills in a pregnant person's food or drink.

This is assault and is treated as such by the PSNI and the Public Prosecution Service.

The abortion regulations mean that women living in the north will no longer have to travel to England or go onto the internet to access abortion. They end the hypocrisy that says "there is no abortion in the north of Ireland" because they are happening elsewhere.

If you want to reduce the number of abortions in Northern Ireland, there are a number of things you can do besides putting women on boats to England.

You could, for example, campaign to end the two-child policy and the benefit cap which families tell us make it difficult for them to welcome another child.

Finally Ireland, north and south, has accepted we cannot continue exporting our problems but have to face up to the reality that women need abortions.

Now that abortion is legal here, we need to make sure that services are available across the region.

And we must ensure that the introduction of a modern abortion service is supported by timely access to the best contraceptive services and by proper sex education in our schools.

Goretti Horgan is a Social Policy lecturer at Ulster University, Director of ARK's Policy Unit and a pro-choice activist.

Hervey, T.K. and Sheldon, S. (2017) Abortion by Telemedicine in Northern Ireland: Patient and Professional Rights across Borders. Northern Ireland Legal Quarterly, 68 (1). pp. 1-33. ISSN 0029-3105

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