Medical staff in Northern Ireland have been told they will not face prosecution if they refer women to clinics in England and Wales for abortions, a development that campaigners say will ease the climate of fear under which many have been operating.
In a significant clarification of the law, the director of public prosecutions for Northern Ireland, Barra McGrory, has said he does “not see the issue of criminal liability arising in the context of NHS staff advising or informing patients of the availability of abortion services in England and Wales”.
Until now the threat of prosecution has made many medical professionals feel constrained in the advice they give women seeking abortions elsewhere. Abortionin Northern Ireland is permitted only in very restricted circumstances, and Northern Ireland has the harshest criminal penalty for illegal abortion in Europe – life imprisonment for the woman undergoing the abortion and for anyone assisting her.
Although the government ruled this year that it would fund the medical costs of women from Northern Ireland who travel to England for an abortion, GPs in Northern Ireland were concerned that they were unable to discuss making referrals without exposing themselves to the risk of prosecution.
Grainne Teggart, from Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland office, received the response from the Northern Ireland Public Prosecution Service in response to a letter requesting clarification of the law. She welcomed the development, but said the Department of Health in Northern Ireland needed to revise its guidance to make the situation less confusing.
“The threat of prosecution has long loomed over medical professionals in Northern Ireland, who have previously felt unable to refer women to other parts of the UK for abortion services for fear of criminal prosecution. This has acted as a significant barrier for women seeking to access abortion,” she said.
“The Public Prosecution Service has now stated clearly they can see no risk of criminal prosecution in these circumstances. This is hugely important and should relieve the profession of this chilling threat. This is a significant breakthrough in the fight for abortion rights here.”
One woman described the unhelpful response she received from a Belfast gynaecologist about how to travel to England for an abortion, after she learned that the foetus she was carrying was unlikely to survive.
“They said: ‘We can’t tell you anything, we would be prosecuted if we gave you that information.’ They weren’t allowed to talk about the options; no phone numbers; no clinic address,” she said. “They were frustrated, but they said their hands were tied.”
Guidelines published by Northern Ireland’s Department of Health last year reveal that the courts in Northern Ireland have “never considered the issue of whether it would be lawful to ‘advocate or promote’ in Northern Ireland the termination of a pregnancy in another jurisdiction”, and this lack of clarity added to unease felt by medical practitioners.
A senior committee member of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in Northern Ireland said last year: “There is a real sense of fear, and concern that one of us could end up in prison.”
Breedagh Hughes, NI director of the Royal College of Midwives, welcomed the clarification. “Midwives have been operating in a climate of fear of prosecution. Women in Northern Ireland have not been getting the care and referrals to services in the UK that they really need because of this threat which we now know does not exist,” she said.
“Healthcare professionals will now be able to refer women to the rest of the UK for abortion services, confident that they will not face prosecution. This will enable us to look after women who seek or need abortion services.”