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8 October 2014

Northern Ireland: Consultation on terminations for fatal fetal anomaly

Northern Ireland's Department of Justice is to begin a public consultation on amending the criminal law on abortion. public will be asked for opinions on possible changes to law in cases of lethal foetal abnormality and rape, BBC News Online reports.

Lethal fetal abnormality is where a baby in the womb has a condition which means it will die while either in the womb or shortly after birth. Currently, neither case is grounds for a legal abortion in Northern Ireland.

The consultation follows a decision taken by Northern Ireland’s Department of Health last year, which said the issue of abortion for cases of lethal fetal abnormality could not be addressed by current abortion guidelines.

In 2013, the story of Sarah Ewart raised the issue of what choices a woman has in Northern Ireland when told she carrying a child with a fatal fetal abnormality. Ms Ewart’s baby was diagnosed with anencephaly, a condition where the brain has not developed.

Under Northern Ireland’s abortion guidelines, she was told she would have to carry the baby to full term. Instead, Ms Ewart chose to travel to England for an abortion but her story triggered a massive public debate. It also triggered the then Health Minister Edwin Poots to ask his officials to consider her case, to ensure “everything has been done that we would expect to be done”, within the confines of the legal position that exists in Northern Ireland.

One year on, Northern Ireland’s Department of Justice is consulting on two specific sets of circumstances. The first is to enable a woman to choose to terminate a pregnancy when she is told the fetus has a lethal abnormality and cannot survive independently after birth. The second is where the woman is made pregnant as a result of rape.

The first part of the public consultation paper addresses the question of lethal fetal abnormality and suggests the law should be changed so that women in that position would not have to travel to England to terminate such a pregnancy, BBC News Online reports. While the consultation document outlines a number of options, the Department of Justice recommends that two clinicians would decide when a foetal condition is incompatible with life - that includes when no treatment after birth would improve chances of survival.

On the issue of sexual crime, the consultation paper questions what the law should be in the event of rape or incest producing a pregnancy.

When it comes to doctors, nurses and midwives, the consultation paper proposes that they have the right of conscientious objection when it comes to being involved in abortion.

The public consultation will close in 12 weeks.

British Pregnancy Advisory Service commented:

‘This consultation is a small step towards a small group of women in Northern Ireland being able to access abortion care in their own country. The cases of women who are ending a much wanted pregnancy because of a fatal fetal anomaly are among the most heartbreaking we see, and we welcome any progress that is made to support these women and their families.

‘However, these proposed changes will do nothing to help the women who are forced to travel abroad every day for abortion care, and it is shameful that their government continues to ignore their health needs.

‘We are also concerned that, given this consultation was scheduled for Easter 2014, any changes will take a long time to come in to force, prolonging the suffering of Northern Irish women. We hope that the government is committed to acting on the outcome of the consultation as soon as possible, rather than merely using it as a method of procrastination.’

Northern Ireland abortion law: public consultation on proposed changes. BBC News Online, 8 October 2014.