Abortion reforms: DoJ emails reveal concerns on ‘obvious difficulties’

Thousands of people protested against the proposed new abortion regime at Stormont last month
Thousands of people protested against the proposed new abortion regime at Stormont last month
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Internal Department of Justice documents show senior officials believe the new regime of decriminalising abortion in Northern Ireland will present “obvious difficulties” for health professionals and the Department of Health.

The news comes after pro-life groups raised concerns that the new legal situation in Northern Ireland will provide little protection for health care professionals who wish to exercise conscientious objection to taking part in abortions. Other difficulties such groups envisage are regarding abortion pills and the readiness of the health service to provide abortions in NI.

At present in NI abortion is only lawful if there is a serious risk to a woman’s health – the most restrictive legal framework in the British Isles. However, legislation passed in Westminster over the summer means that unless the NI Assembly is reinstated by October 21, abortion will become totally decriminalised in NI.

The emails were uncovered under the Freedom of Information Act and passed to public affairs charity CARE NI.

Its policy officer, Mark Baillie, said: “It is striking that Department of Justice officials in their internal communications admit the new abortion laws will cause significant issues.

“Here we have senior departmental officials acknowledging what we and others have been arguing – that the new legislation, imposed on us by Westminster, will mean we end up with a more liberal abortion regime than GB.

“These documents also highlight that the Westminster legislation which was voted on by MPs who do not represent NI is a poorly drafted, rushed piece of legislation,” which he noted was carried out with any NI consultation.

“The comments about the five-month regulatory gap are also deeply concerning.”

One DoJ email noted no regulatory framework for abortion is required until March 31 2020. “This will leave a significant gap which will have very obvious difficulties for the Department of Health and health professionals, but that is largely a matter for the Department of Health,” it added.

On the requirement to come up with new regulations by end of March 2020, the Government Equalities Office advised DoJ that it “will be quite tough to do within the deadline” and that the new regime “will actually go further than what is in GB”.

The DoJ briefing email said there was an option to retain criminal legislation to make it an offence to access or provide termination services outside of the regulatory framework. “There may be pressure from some for this to be adopted although that is not what seems to be intended by the government,” it added.

A Department of Justice spokeswoman said the July emails provided a summary of the progress of the bill through Parliament and “a briefing on the department’s interpretation of the intention of the legislation, reflecting issues raised in debates, and the potential implications for the work of the department”.

Comment was also sought from the Northern Ireland Office and Amnesty International.