On 22 October 2019 abortion was decriminalised in Northern Ireland through the repeal of sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. No criminal charges can be brought under that Act against women and girls who have an abortion or against healthcare professionals or others who provide and assist in the abortion.
Section 25 (1) of the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1945 currently remains meaning that abortions ‘where the foetus is capable of being born alive’ continue to be unlawful.
The UK Government will bring forward regulations to introduce a new framework for abortion in Northern Ireland by 31 March 2020 to include where there is a risk to a woman’s health, in cases of fatal and severe fetal abnormalities, or in circumstances of rape and incest. A public consultation on how the changes will be implemented is being conducted.
The Northern Ireland Office (NIO) has issued guidance for healthcare professionals to cover the interim period between 22 October 2019 and 31 March 2020. This supersedes previous guidance issued by the Department of Health in March 2016.
The NIO guidance states there are no plans for additional services to be routinely available in Northern Ireland before 31 March 2020 and that there is no expectation that GPs will prescribe medication for early medical abortion. However, if a health professional does choose to offer an abortion service during the interim period, they should do so in line with their professional competence and guidance from their professional body.
Healthcare professionals may also choose to treat a woman where a fatal or serious fetal anomaly has been detected. Clinical guidance is available from NICE and RCOG. Doctors remain under a duty to act where a woman’s life or health is at risk.
Central Booking System
A funded abortion service, including travel for all women and girls from Northern Ireland, is in place in England. Women should be provided with the number for the Central Booking System (0333 234 2184). Health professionals can also refer into this service. This will remain until services are in place to meet the needs of women in Northern Ireland.
Abortion Pills Online
Some women may continue to purchase abortion pills online and if required can seek medical assistance in Northern Ireland following their use. Health professionals are no longer under a duty to report an offence.
Consideration is being given to providing for conscientious objection in the new framework from the end of March 2020. GMC guidance states if you have a conscientious objection to abortion you must tell your patients in a timely manner about their right to see another doctor and make sure they have enough information to exercise that right.
Informing Choices NI has produced a leaflet for healthcare professionals on the recent law change. You can download the leaflet here.