NI abortion guidelines to be published

Sarah Ewart (who had an abortion in England after learning her baby had no chance of survival ) at Belfast High Court
Sarah Ewart (who had an abortion in England after learning her baby had no chance of survival ) at Belfast High Court

Pro-abortion campaigners have broadly welcomed news that abortion guidelines for Northern Ireland are to be published - but still pressed for relaxation of the current law.

In Northern Ireland, abortion is only lawful if a woman’s life is in jeopardy or there is a serious risk to her health.

Patrick Corrigan of Amnesty International supports Sarah Ewart  outside Belfast High Court after a hearing on current abortion legislation

Patrick Corrigan of Amnesty International supports Sarah Ewart outside Belfast High Court after a hearing on current abortion legislation

Some doctors express concern that they could be prosecuted for abortions even under these conditions.

The issue has been hotly debated between the pro- and anti-abortion camps.

The plans to publish the latest set of abortion guidelines follows years of talks between the Department of Health, the Department of Justice and senior clinicians.

It also comes after a series of legal challenges against the current law and a high-profile but unsuccessful campaign to legalise abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality; last month Stormont voted against the measure by 59 votes to 40.

Campaigner Sarah Ewart last night gave a lukewarm welcome for new guidelines but demanded legal reform.

In 2013 she opted for an abortion in England after her unborn baby was diagnosed with a fatal foetal abnormality.

“New guidance may help some women, but it won’t help me and other women with fatal foetal diagnoses,” she said.

“When I met my consultant in 2013, already with a fatal foetal diagnosis and knowing that I needed a termination, she banged her files on the desk and said: ‘I’m not going to prison for anyone.’

“All the guidance in the world cannot change Northern Ireland’s 19th century law and that is what is needed. MLAs in the current Assembly failed to deliver that law reform.

“It must be an urgent priority for the next Assembly after the election on May 5.”

Amnesty International, which supported Ms Ewart’s campaign, said it would study the new draft legal guidance for medics but repeated its call for urgent reform of Northern Ireland’s “restrictive abortion law”.

Likewise, Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson gave a “cautious welcome” to news that the guidelines are to be published - and added that a change in the law may be needed.

But Green Party deputy leader Clare Bailey went further and dismissed the guidelines, saying: “Northern Ireland’s archaic abortion law needs to be updated.”