Report recommends change to strict abortion law in Northern Ireland

Abortion law in Northern Ireland should be changed to allow for terminations in instances of fatal foetal abnormality, a long-awaited report has recommended.

The law as it stands prevents doctors and other healthcare staff from meeting their duty of care towards pregnant women in such circumstances and makes the situation "professionally untenable", the inter-Departmental working group found.

Unlike other parts of the UK, the 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland, where abortions are illegal except where the life or mental health of the mother is in danger.

Women from the region whose unborn are diagnosed with a fatal foetal abnormality must travel outside Northern Ireland to undergo a termination.

Sarah Ewart went public about the trauma of having to travel to England for an abortion (Liam McBurney/PA)
Sarah Ewart went public about the trauma of having to travel to England for an abortion (Liam McBurney/PA)

The report was commissioned in 2016 by the then Health and Justice Ministers but its publication has been delayed due to the absence of an Executive and Assembly at Stormont.

The Department of Health said it revealed the report's findings and recommendations on Wednesday on public interest grounds and in accordance with Freedom of Information responsibilities.

The 58-page report by the working group, which was chaired by the Chief Medical Officer, Michael McBride, recommended "that a change is made to abortion law to provide for termination of pregnancy where the abnormality is of such a nature as to be likely to cause death either before birth, during birth or in the early period after birth".

The seven-member working group defined a fatal foetal abnormality as when a diagnosis is given at around 20 weeks, that there is an abnormality which will result in death in the womb, at birth or shortly after birth.

The plight faced by pregnant women dealing with fatal foetal abnormality hit the headlines in 2013 when young mother Sarah Ewart went public about having to travel to England to access a termination after being told her unborn child had no chance of survival outside the womb.

The report recognised what it described as "the trauma for (a) woman of travelling away from home and family at such a difficult time, the loss of her dedicated medical team and the associated financial cost".

Ms Ewart's mother Jane Christie told BBC Radio Ulster's Stephen Nolan show she welcomed the report.

She said: "We have always said that any woman that wants to go through the birth should be supported, but there are ones like Sarah that don't and they also should be supported."

She added: "This is hard enough to deal with without being sent away."

Proposals to relax Northern Ireland's strict abortion laws were rejected in Stormont in 2016.

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