Abortion has been decriminalised in Northern Ireland and services will become widely available in April 2020 after a last-ditch attempt to resurrect the Assembly and halt its implementation failed.
The passage of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 means that a pregnancy can now be terminated without anyone involved fearing prosecution, meaning that the criminal charges on medical professionals who provide abortions have also been lifted.
In the interim period of the Act’s passage and the full rollout of abortion services in Northern Ireland, which ends in March 2020, anyone wishing to terminate a pregnancy will still be forced to fly to England in order to access abortion services, but information on how to do so can now be provided by local healthcare workers and medical assistance can be provided to anyone who has taken medication to induce termination. The Department of Health is undertaking a consultation and working with frontline medical staff in order to bring services in line with UK standards by 1 April 2020.
The Northern Ireland Office (NIO) has issued guidance stating that no criminal charges can be brought against anyone who has an abortion or any healthcare professional who has played a role in providing one. This also means that any outstanding pending criminal cases have been dropped. Anyone wishing to avail of an abortion in England during the interim period will be financially supported, with a carer’s expenses also provided for.
Abortions in cases of “fatal or serious foetal anomaly” can be carried out in Northern Ireland up to 28 weeks, with each treated on a case-by-case basis. A consultant will take into account the mental and physical needs of the patient before deciding the best course of action.
Medical abortions will be provided on two hospital sites in Northern Ireland and it is believed that buffer zones will be put in place, making Northern Ireland one of the first European jurisdictions to implement the measure that is somewhat common in the USA. In practice, this means that an area around the hospitals will be marked as a safe zone for those wishing to avail of abortion services and anyone protesting or obstructing within that area will be liable to be prosecuted.
The Department of Health will fund the service and provide training for staff to ensure all safety and quality standards are met. Doctors who have qualified within the last eight years are expected to require extra training. It is thought that there will be roughly 1,060 terminations per year in Northern Ireland once the service has been fully rolled out.
Northern Ireland’s Attorney General John Larkin has said that the guidelines for Northern Ireland-specific legislation on abortion are inconsistent with human rights and unclear. He provided legal advice for the drafting of the Defence of the Unborn legislation that the DUP was unable to bring through Stormont during their failed attempt to resurrect the Assembly. Former First Minister Arlene Foster has said the party will return to him for more advice as they seek to mount a legal challenge against the Act’s implementation.
For the time being, if someone approaches their GP seeking an abortion, they are expected to be given the number for the Central Booking Service in England’s funded abortion services, or for a call to be placed on their behalf. The guidance notes that conscientious objection for medical professionals in England and Wales who personally object to the provision of abortions is limited to participating in a “hands-on” capacity and does not extend to refusing to undertake ancillary or administrative tasks.
This is likely to be the case in Northern Ireland unless the Department of Health’s consultation suggests otherwise.