Northern Ireland’s leading prosecutor has addressed confusion surrounding controversial draft abortion guidelines in the region by insisting it is not a crime to assist a woman going elsewhere in the UK for a termination.
The intervention by Director of Public Prosecutions Barra McGrory comes after doctors and nurses claimed the guidelines, which highlight the risk of imprisonment for breaches of Northern Ireland’s tight abortion laws, have created a mood of fear among healthcare professionals.
One particular source of uncertainty in the Stormont Department of Health issued guidance was the description of a “grey area” over the legality of someone advocating or promoting a termination outside the region.
Mr McGrory today made clear that such actions were not criminal.
“There is no criminal offence of aiding and abetting, counselling or procuring someone to have what is a lawful abortion in England,” he said.
“We can see no circumstances in which anyone would fall foul of the criminal law in that regard.”
The issue has gained prominence this month after the spotlight was shone on the cases of two pregnant women, whose babies had a fatal foetal abnormality, who were refused terminations in Northern Ireland.
The region is not covered by the 1967 Abortion Act that operates in the rest of the UK and terminations are only permitted where there is a serious risk to the physical or mental health of the mother.
Every year more than 1,000 women travel from the region to clinics in England, Scotland and Wales where access to an abortion is allowed up to 24 weeks into pregnancy on grounds that include abnormalities which could lead to a child being seriously disabled.
Mr McGrory, who said he was not consulted on the draft guidelines, gave his legal opinion on cases of fatal foetal abnormalities.
“The circumstances in which you are talking, of these tragic cases of foetal abnormality, where individuals have felt it necessary to travel to England to have an abortion because of serious foetal abnormality, in those circumstances, I can envisage no situation where anyone giving advice and assistance in that regard would fall foul of the law,” he told BBC Radio Ulster’s Stephen Nolan show.
“You cannot aid or abet or procure something which is not a crime in our law.”
Draft guidelines on how to apply the law in Northern Ireland were published by the Department of Health earlier this year and put out for public consultation. With that process now over, Health Minister Edwin Poots is set to bring revised guidelines before the Stormont Executive within weeks.
In regard to the “grey area” noted in the draft guidelines, a spokeswoman for the minister’s department explained that the issue had not yet been tested by the courts.
“The ‘grey area’ in the guidelines refers to whether it is lawful to ‘advocate or promote’ an abortion in another jurisdiction,” she said.
“That is, to actively encourage someone to have a termination. This has not been considered by the Courts in Northern Ireland.
“It is not unlawful to provide information about services in other jurisdictions, and it is not unlawful to travel to GB.
“Legal advice was available throughout the drafting of this draft. The DPP is not routinely asked for legal advice.”
Pro-choice campaigners have claimed the draft guidelines have narrowed the law on abortion while pro-life advocates have vowed to potentially challenge any changes to the guidelines through the courts.