"The consultation on the latest proposed guidance on abortion law and clinical practice in Northern Ireland finished on Friday 22 October. This consultation was a result of SPUC’s legal victory last year when the High Court ordered the withdrawal of the health department’s original guidance. SPUC’s success was a serious setback for both the department of health and the abortion advocates who had hoped to use guidelines to undermine Northern Ireland’s abortion law in the same way the euthanasia lobby undermined the law on assisted suicide. The original guidance had the potential to make abortion more readily available in the province and would have forced pro-life doctors to facilitate abortion by referral. SPUC therefore had no choice but to seek a judicial review.
The High Court singled out flaws in two crucial areas, counselling and conscientious objection. The importance of these issues is underlined by the fact that the problems in these sections meant the entire guidance had to be withdrawn. Despite this, however, the health officials were so determined to press ahead with the guidance that it was quickly reissued without the sections on counselling and conscientious objection. It was only after SPUC was granted permission to begin a second court action, that the health department finally withdrew the entire document and called the consultation process which has just ended.
The new proposals contain many of the problems of the original guidance. For example:
But the most serious difficulty with the new version of the guidance is that it has failed to take on board the criticisms of the High Court regarding conscientious objection. Section 4.2 describes the circumstances where “a practitioner or other healthcare professional may not refuse to participate in a termination procedure”. It describes these circumstances as including “where the life of the woman is in danger”. The High Court ruled that the same statement in the original guidance failed to make sufficiently clear whether such circumstances would include a threat to life on mental health grounds. Remarkably this passage still appears in the reissued guidance.
- the need for specialised counselling for women traumatised byabortion is ignored
- there are no proposals for comprehensive monitoring procedures to ensure doctors comply with the law
- it lacks a forthright rejection of eugenic abortion
- it misinterprets statements on conscientious objection from the General Medical Council and the Nursing and Midwifery Council.
Pro-life efforts to date have resulted in gradual improvements but the overall tone of the guidance still reflects a broadly permissive interpretation of abortion law in Northern Ireland. Ultimately, the ministers in the Executive will have to give their approval to the guidance before it can be published. Until then the pro-life movement must continue to call on politicians to ensure the final version of the guidance establishes highest possible levels of protection for children, their mothers and members of the medical profession."
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