A working group has recommended a change to Northern Ireland’s laws to allow abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality.
The change would provide for termination of pregnancy “where the abnormality is of such a nature as to be likely to cause death before, during or in the early period after birth”.
Unlike other parts of the UK, the 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to NI.
Currently, a termination is only permitted in Northern Ireland if a woman’s life is at risk or if there is a risk of permanent and serious damage to her mental or physical health.
Rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormalities are not circumstances in which an abortion can be performed legally.
A fatal foetal abnormality diagnosis means doctors believe an unborn child has a terminal condition and will die in the womb or shortly after birth.
The working group was first proposed in February 2016, when the Northern Ireland Assembly voted against allowing women to terminate pregnancies under such circumstances.
The commissioned report was expected to inform policy of the Stormont Executive, but Northern Ireland has been without a devolved government since power sharing broke down in January 2017,
Usually, publication of such reports would be a matter for ministers but, in the absence of a government, the departments of justice and health have decided to release the report “on public interest grounds”.
Timeline of NI abortion law challenges
- 30 November 2015: A High Court judge in Northern Ireland rules Northern Ireland’s law breached the European Convention on Human Rights in cases of fatal foetal abnormality or sexual crime
- 11 February 2016: Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly vote against legalising abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality (by 59 votes to 40) and cases of sexual crime (by 64 votes to 30)
- 14 June 2017: Supreme Court rejects an appeal by an anonymous mother and daughter that NI women should be able to access free NHS abortions in England.
- 29 June 2017: Northern Ireland’s Department of Justice (DoJ) and Attorney General successfully appeal against 2015 High Court human rights ruling, prompting the NIHRC to go to the Supreme Court
- 29 June 2017: The government announces women from Northern Ireland will be entitled to free NHS abortions in England, after a Labour-led campaign
- 25 October 2017: Supreme Court considers appeal that argues Northern Ireland law is incompatible with international human rights
The report states that fatal foetal abnormality is “an acceptable description of a diagnosis made, usually around 20 weeks gestation, of a foetal abnormality which will result in death in utero, at birth or shortly after birth”.
Among the key findings of the report are:
- If a fatal foetal abnormality is diagnosed, it should be accepted that continuing such a pregnancy “poses a substantial risk of serious adverse effect on a women’s health and wellbeing”
- Improvements can be made to the care and support of women diagnosed with a fatal foetal abnormality
- Health professionals have said that retaining current laws would “place an unacceptable burden on women’s health and wellbeing”
The report added that “one of the most compelling cases for change” came from medical staff who said current laws “prevents them from fully meeting their duty of care to all women in this situation”.
“In summary, health professionals considered the current situation to be professionally untenable,” it said.
The working group that compiled the report was chaired by Northern Ireland’s chief medical officer Michael McBride and included Charlotte McArdle, the chief nursing officer and Seán Holland, the chief social services officer.