By Emma Campbell.

The Alliance for Choice has welcomed the landslide vote in favour of abortion rights in Northern Ireland in the House of Commons in Westminster on Tuesday July 16 and has urged the government to take action. An amendment to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill 2019, tabled by Stella Creasy MP, passed by 332-99 votes. There must be no more delay on the decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland.

The amendment states that if the Northern Ireland Assembly has not reconvened by October 21 2019, the government will be required  to change abortion laws in Northern Ireland. The change in the law will require the government to bring Northern Ireland’s abortion law into line with the recommendations of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which has recommended the repeal of Sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Persons Act 1861.

Women, girls and pregnant people in Northern Ireland face some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world.  Last year 1,053 women traveled to England and Wales to access abortion. The outcome of this vote is a huge step forward in support for human rights and a recognition that urgent action is needed. We urge the government to listen to the majority of the House of Commons and not to delay any further.

Concerns over House of Lords attempt to weaken proposal

The Bill is currently going through the House of Lords today (Wednesday July 17), and will return to the House of Commons for another vote tomorrow.

Campaigners for abortion law reform in Northern Ireland have raised their concerns regarding potential amendments in the House of Lords today to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill, which are aimed to derail or delay the Clause 9 as introduced by Stella Creasy MP.

An amendment to Clause 9 has been tabled by Lord Morrow and Baroness O’Loan which would require the government to “consult individually with members of the Northern Ireland Assembly on the proposals” and that the regulations could only come in to effect with the agreement of a majority of MLAs.

Campaigners are calling on the Lords to support a revised amendment tabled today by Lord Dubs, Baroness Watkins, and Baroness Barker, supported by Stella Creasy, which has stated a completion date of January 13 – the same date that the amendment on equal marriage is expected to come into effect.

Abortion provisions and restrictions in Northern Ireland

There are existing regulations and provision for abortion already in Northern Ireland. Up until 2013, there were on average 80 abortions each year, usually due to foetal anomalies or severe illness. Marie Stopes was open from 2012-2017 and provided Early Medical Abortion (EMA) to people who met the strict criteria in Belfast, and scanned and referred others overseas. Unlike in the Republic since the repeal of the Eighth Amendment, which is starting from scratch, we do have some existing provision and expertise on abortion – albeit limited.

There is currently a draft set of National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) guidelines to terminations which would be able to take effect in Northern Ireland if abortion is decriminalised. The guidelines state: “This guideline covers termination of pregnancy for women of any age. It aims to improve the organisation of services to make it easier for women to access a termination. Detailed recommendations on conducting terminations at different gestational stages are also included, to ensure that women get the most effective care possible.”

The Department of Health in the North has a formal link with NICE, under which NICE guidance – published on July 1, 2006 – is reviewed locally for its applicability to Northern Ireland and, where found to be applicable, is endorsed by the Department for implementation in health and social care service delivery.

Medical professionals support decriminalisation

A questionnaire was posted in 2009 to all 43 NHS gynaecologists in Northern Ireland. One had retired. After three mailings, 37 practitioners replied; a response rate of 88 per cent. Of these, 21 (57 per cent) favoured a liberalisation of the law in Northern Ireland . Even if all the non-responders opposed liberalisation, half (21/42) would still be in favour.

A total of 35 per cent (13 of 37) wanted unrestricted access in the first trimester, a more liberal position than allowed by the current law in Great Britain. A total of 29 (78 per cent) were in favour of free abortions for women from Northern Ireland, as is largely the case in England and Wales. A total of 19 (51 per cent) were in favour of abortion charities being licensed to carry out legal abortions in Northern Ireland but 38 per cent were opposed to this proposal.

The following medical bodies are in support of decriminalisation of abortion for women and pregnant people in Great Britain and Northern Ireland:

  • The Royal College of Midwives

The Royal College of Midwives (RCM) has long campaigned for women in Northern Ireland to be given the same rights and access to abortion healthcare services as women in the UK.

  • The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists has stated: “Members of the Northern Ireland Committee have increasing concerns regarding the purchase of abortion-inducing medications online and the potential complications that can arise when they are not taken under medical supervision. This poses difficulties for healthcare professionals caring for women under such circumstances and places women and professionals at risk of imprisonment.”

“We are aware that women, particularly those in vulnerable circumstances, are more likely to attempt to access abortion pills online, despite the recent changes in arrangements for abortion provision in England. It is also more likely that women may delay seeking help should they develop any complications from taking these pills, due to the fear of being discovered and the potential legal consequences.”

  • The Royal College of Nurses

Recently the Royal College of Nursing released the results of its consultation on decriminalisation. The UK-wide poll of members revealed that 73.7 per cent voted in favour of removing criminal sanctions on abortion – however, they are yet to take a position on this issue.

  • Medical Students for Choice

The Medical Students for Choice group has said: “We actively support the introduction of legislation to ensure the full decriminalisation of abortion in NI, and stand in solidarity with the Repeal the 8th coalition in the Republic of Ireland.

  • British Medical Association (the industry trade union)

The union representing medical professionals has stated: “The BMA supports the decriminalisation of abortion UK-wide. Abortion should be treated as a medical issue rather than a criminal issue.”

In a 2017 discussion paper on the issue, the union said it “supports the extension of the Abortion Act 1967 to Northern Ireland, where it would remain applicable if abortion was decriminalised (for example, if abortion was decriminalised up to 24 weeks’ gestation, the Abortion Act may still apply post 24 weeks gestation).

“The BMA has expressed concerns about section 5 of the Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1967 which places a legal duty, unique to Northern Ireland, on everyone to report to the police information they may have about the commission of a relevant offence (i.e. one with a maximum sentence of five years or more).”

The Alliance for Choice knows that there are medical professionals who support women’s access to abortion. We had a number of doctors, nurses and others who worked at Marie Stopes Belfast when it was operating between 2012 and 2017. We also know that there were a number of obstetricians and gynaecologists who provided abortions due to fatal foetal abnormalities and for so-called vulnerable women until the 2013 Guidelines from the Department of Health were released, following which the number of abortions per year dropped from an average of 80 to an average of 20, forcing other women to travel.

Emma Campbell is the co-chair of Alliance for Choice . You can follow the Alliance for Choice on Twitter @All4Choice and on Facebook here.

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