A set of newly published abortion guidelines for medical professionals in Northern Ireland have been described as a “document of death” by a prominent pro-life campaigner.
The guidelines will come into effect on October 22 unless the Northern Ireland Assembly is restored before that date.
That is thanks to legislation passed by MPs at Westminster in the summer to liberalise Northern Ireland’s strict laws on abortion.
The new guidelines, published by the UK government on Monday night, will cover the period between the decriminalisation of abortion on October 22 and the implementation of new regulations in March 2020.
The Northern Ireland Office has said there were no plans for abortion services being made routinely available during the period from October to March.
But assistance will be offered to help women travel for an abortion elsewhere in the UK until March.
There is also provision for abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality or serious foetal abnormality.
The guidelines have been welcomed by groups such as the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission but strongly criticised by pro-life campaigners.
Bernie Smyth, who leads the lobby group Precious Life, said: “This document is not about protecting life at all – it is about ending life. It is a document of death.”
She has expressed concern about “vague” terminology regarding foetal abnormalities potentially opening the door to abortions in other circumstances.
The guidelines state that medical professionals could “choose to treat a woman where a fatal or serious foetal anomaly has been detected”.
Ms Smyth said: “A serious foetal abnormality could mean different things to different doctors. That could mean spina bifida, that could mean a cleft palette or club foot, it could mean Down’s syndrome. It is vague so where do we draw the line? The ultimate end result is that babies with disabilities will die.”
She said the guidelines show a “total absence” of provision of perinatal care for women who choose to continue with a pregnancy in difficult circumstances.
“I don’t see anything within the guidelines that speaks of help and support for women who want to continue with their pregnancy,” she said.
“For women who receive a poor diagnosis, where is the perinatal and hospice care?”
She added: “Every elected representative in Northern Ireland should read this document because this is it, this is what is coming in. I don’t think it is likely but I am still hopeful the Assembly will get together to stop this.”
The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission gave advice to the secretary of state about the guidelines.
Chief commissioner Les Allamby said: “We welcome the fact that our advice has been mostly followed.
“This commission had recommended that abortions should be effectively facilitated and made available to all women and girls through the GB pathway as an interim measure between October 2019 and March 2020. This can only be a temporary arrangement however in advance of a new, fully compliant local service becoming operational.”
Alliance Party councillor Nuala McAllister also welcomed the publication of the guidelines.
“Whilst there will be no NHS services introduced before March 2020, I welcome the fact that doctors and midwives can refer patients to services available in England and Wales,” she said.