Abortion in Northern Ireland: an overview

17 Apr 2015 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 6 Jul 2015

Abortion is amongst the most divisive issues in our tumultuous society. In the first of a series of pieces looking at this issue as it comes to a time of great flux, Scope outlines where we are and how we got there.

Despite our endless arguments about parades, symbolism and competing historical narratives, perhaps Northern Ireland’s single most emotionally-charged political issue is something that transcends the unionist/nationalist divide.

What to do about abortion is a long-running question and in the next few months several changes will be clarified – or not – but the arguments are unlikely to subside, whatever the outcomes.

Yesterday Minister of Justice David Ford announced his proposals for an extension of the criteria under which abortions are permissible here, namely in pregnancies with a fatal foetal abnormality.

There are a substantial number of people who will resist this change, while another significant number will say it does not go nearly far enough.

Indeed, a pre-emptive legal challenge was already and remains underway to extend the right to choose an abortion in cases of rape and incest.

Over the coming weeks Scope will explore this issue from a number of viewpoints, highlighting different views and also analysing the difficulty of reconciling them and achieving a consensus.

Here we provide an overview of the situation as it stands.

Law in the rest of the UK is largely determined the Abortion Act 1967, which was never extended to NI.

Instead, the grounds for any possible termination of pregnancy is determined by a combination of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, the Criminal Justice Act 1945 and, of course, by case law.

The conclusion of all these laws is that abortions were only permitted in cases where there was a serious risk to the life or long-term physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or girl.

In 2001 the Family Planning Association of Northern Ireland mounted a legal challenge against DHSSPS, demanding that the department issued guidance clarifying this requirement, about the circumstances under which a termination can take place.

The association argued that the department was failing in its duty, leaving it to the discretion of medical practitioners to make legal judgements about when they were and were not allowed to offer an abortion, and was ultimately successful.

A guidance document does now exist, and has been subject to a handful of amendments in recent years, but is still marked as a “draft”.

Last December David Ford announced his consultation, saying he wanted to test views on a change in the law relating to cases involving a fatal foetal abnormality, while there were also suggestions that submissions in the case of rape and incest would be considered.

The minister has now publicised his plans on the back of this consultation, proposing extending abortion provision to cases where there is a fatal abnormality but not to those involving sexual crime.

This draft legislation will go before the Executive and pending its approval – by no means a sure thing – will go before the Assembly for a vote.

However, the Human Rights Commission is in the middle of a legal pursuit to force Stormont to further allow terminations in cases involving rape or incest, as well as “serious malformation” of a foetus.

The HRC claims current law does not meet the human rights minimum standards, saying the alterations they are pursuing are essential.

No matter how all of these contingencies are resolved there is no reason to believe it will represent much of a conclusion. The debate rages on.

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