Politicians have backed away from supporting new guidance on Northern Ireland’s abortion law.
The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) has published the guidance which it says aims to “explain the existing law” on abortion in the Province.
However, DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson said he and his party had “unresolved” concerns about the guidelines and had voted against them when they were brought before the Executive.
Abortion is only lawful in Northern Ireland if the mother’s life is endangered.
The guidance says doctors are allowed to perform abortions if necessary to preserve the life of the mother or if there is a risk of real, long-term or permanent damage to her mental health.
Campaign groups say the guidance blurs the distinction between indirect abortion, which takes place in the course of emergency treatment for the mother, and directly terminating a pregnancy. One group has threatened to seek a judicial review of the guidelines.
Betty Gibson, chair of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children in Northern Ireland (SPUCNI), said: “A medical intervention to save the life of a pregnant woman is lawful, even if it risks the death of her unborn child.
“However, it is never lawful to perform any operation solely aimed at taking the life of a child.”
Journalist Liam Clarke writes in The Times: “Don’t believe the political spin – abortion has just become a lot easier in Northern Ireland. Depending on how medical professionals implement new guidelines, it may even be easier to get a National Health Service abortion right up to full term than it is in England.”
The new guidelines have been published by the DHSSPS following legal action from a pro-abortion group in 2004.
In the judgment calling for the guidance, Lord Justice Nicholson wrote: “This judgment is written in the hope that the department will seek to reduce the number of women and girls going away to seek an abortion and to encourage those seeking an abortion in Northern Ireland to make a different choice.”
However, campaign group Precious Life points out that the guidelines make no reference to Lord Justice Nicholson’s recommendation.
The guidelines simply state that women seeking abortions should be offered “non-judgmental and non-directive” counselling and, where possible, time to consider their choice.
They also say that GPs, as well as psychiatrists, can assess the risk to the mother’s mental health.
The guidelines confirm that doctors and nurses can refuse to provide or participate in carrying out abortions, but say they must refer women to another colleague.
Mrs Gibson said: “It is unacceptable for the health department guidelines to require anyone to put in place arrangements to facilitate the intentional killing of a child through abortion.
“On the contrary, a doctor has a moral and legal duty not to be involved in the deliberate killing of one of his or her patients.”
She added: “At present we are considering all of the options available to us to ensure that the law is fully reflected in the guidelines.
“If the department wishes to avoid a judicial review of this document then it must introduce serious changes right away.”