Abortion reform in NI could leave frontline health workers ‘exposed’

Lecturer and former midwife Debbie Duncan
Lecturer and former midwife Debbie Duncan
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The planned decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland will leave healthcare workers who conscientiously object to the procedure “exposed”, a former midwife has warned.

Debbie Duncan, a lecturer in the School of Nursing and Midwifery at Queen’s University Belfast, fears the mooted liberalisation of abortion laws next month will go too far and leave the Province with no regulation.

Midwife in the SE Health Trust, Judith Smyth

Midwife in the SE Health Trust, Judith Smyth

Meanwhile,another healthcare worker said the reform would remove “all meaningful legal protection” for the unborn child.

Earlier this year, Parliament fast-tracked through radical changes to NI’s abortion law, which will move it from being the most restrictive law in the UK to being the most liberal.

MPs overwhelmingly backed the motion to repeal Sections 58 and 59 of Northern Ireland’s 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, which forbid both women and doctors from committing abortions.

Unless devolution is restored by October 21, the Province’s abortion ban will be lifted the following day.

Ms Duncan, who worked in the NHS for over 30 years first as a midwife and then as an advanced nurse practitioner in primary care, said the move will leave a five-month “vacuum”, with regulations not required to be in place until the end of March 2020.

“The implications of that are terrible,” she told the News Letter.

“By repealing the 1861 Act and leaving nothing in its place, they have gone from one extreme to the other. Most people would agree the 1861 Act needed to change, but the process should have taken longer and it should have gone out for consultation.”

She also pointed out that, while working as a midwife in England, she was able opt out of taking part in terminations if she objected, due to the provisions enshrined in the 1967 Abortion Act.

“These amendments may leave me and my health care colleagues exposed in Northern Ireland where there is no clause on conscientious objection,” she added.

Also giving her view on the reform of abortion laws was Judith Smyth, a midwife in the South Eastern Trust.

She stated: “We have had the privilege in NI to be involved in providing maternity care under a law which has carefully protected both lives about as far as possible, allowing for abortion only in limited circumstances related to the life and health of the woman.

“The new legislation could remove all meaningful legal protection for the unborn child until at least viability.

“It’s really important to be clear, this legal change is not about the hard cases we hear so much about.

“Unborn babies in NI would be left with even less protection than in GB where already 98% of all abortions involve physically healthy women aborting physically healthy babies, and where for every four children born, one is aborted.

“As a midwife, and as a group of midwives, we know the unborn baby is a human life that deserves dignity and protection.”