Tuesday 24 March 2009

Flawed abortion guidance for Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland's Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) has issued guidance on the circumstances in which abortion can be performed, and it is fundamentally flawed. My colleagues in the province warn that the policy could face a judicial review if it is not amended to reflect the true state of affairs.

Mrs Betty Gibson, chairwoman of SPUC Northern Ireland, said: "Abortion is a criminal offence in Northern Ireland not a medical procedure. A medical intervention to save the life of a pregnant woman is lawful, even if it risks the death of her unborn child. However, it is never lawful to perform any operation solely aimed at taking the life of a child. This remains the law and the guidance published by the department of health cannot change that.

"The guidelines are incorrect in relation to a medical professional's refusal to facilitate an abortion. The DHSSPS guidance cites advice from the General Medical Council in an attempt to convince objecting doctors that they should refer women to a colleague who will approve the abortion. However, no-one can be forced to co-operate in the performance of a criminal offence.

"Doctors should remember that GMC advice also states: 'Patients must be able to trust doctors with their lives and health. To justify that trust you must show respect for human life and you must: Make the care of your patient your first concern.'

"Medical professionals have a duty to have respect for life and an ethical and legal duty of care owed to an unborn child as a patient. It is unacceptable for the health department guidelines to require anyone to put in place arrangements to facilitate the intentional killing of a child through abortion. On the contrary, a doctor has a moral and legal duty not to be involved in the deliberate killing of one of his or her patients.

"We believe the department of health has not listened to the concerns expressed by the Northern Ireland Health Committee. As a result these guidelines are fundamentally flawed. At present we are considering all of the options available to us to ensure that the law is fully reflected in the guidelines. If the department wishes to avoid a judicial review of this document then it must introduce serious changes right away."