NI doctors not referring women for abortions in GB due to legal uncertainty

Doctors in Northern Ireland are not referring women for abortions in Great Britain because the step has not been tested in court, the country’s chief medical officer has said.

Most are obtaining terminations by contacting providers directly but GPs can provide signposting advice since the official guidance makes that clear, a parliamentary inquiry was told.

Northern Ireland has the strictest laws surrounding abortion in the UK.

The procedure recently became available on the NHS for women from Northern Ireland in Great Britain and significant numbers have travelled.

Chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride said: “It is not clear whether health professionals can formally refer into those services and whether it would be lawful to do so.”

The former director of the Marie Stopes pregnancy advice service in Northern Ireland, Dawn Purvis, said there was a grey area around the provision of information by GPs.

She added: “There is a fear that if they have a bunch of leaflets on their desk from the Family Planning Agency (FPA) or Marie Stopes that somehow they are breaking the law and that they will be reported for having information there.”

Stormont ministers have not been in place for two years.

Dr McBride said medical professionals should be able to fulfil their duty of care without fear that they could break the law.

Westminster’s Committee on Women and Equalities took evidence in Belfast on Friday.

Abortion on the NHS is free for those from Northern Ireland who travel to other parts of the UK.

Bernadette Smyth court case
Ms Purvis said there was a ‘criminalising attitude’ and a failure to produce clear guidance for healthcare professionals, nurses and doctors (Brian Lawless/PA).

Ms Purvis said there was a “criminalising attitude” and a failure to produce clear guidance for healthcare professionals, nurses and doctors.

“The impact is horrendous.”

The 1967 Abortion Act was not introduced in Northern Ireland and there is a fierce lobbying war between campaigners for liberalisation and those who believe the life of the unborn is sacrosanct.

A total of 12 terminations were carried out in Northern Ireland last year, the procedure is allowed when a woman’s life in in danger.

The committee said women were confused about whether they could receive aftercare in Northern Ireland if they had taken abortion pills or sought one in Great Britain.

Dr McBride said counselling and emotional care was available.

“We give that in a way that respects an individual woman’s views.

“It is very clear that, that is a requirement, I struggle with the view that there is some uncertainty.”

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