A family planning charity's legal challenge has forced the Department of Health in Stormont to promise to issue draft guidelines on abortion, after years of stonewalling and delays.
The 1967 Abortion Act does not cover Northern Ireland, where abortion is governed by an Act from 1861, and is illegal in most circumstances. As FPA pointed out in a statement, "there are no good practice guidelines to enable clinicians and women to interpret the law."
The FPA had to take the Northern Irish Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) to court to extract a promise to issue draft guidelines - a process which took 11 years. The new guidelines will be published on March 7.
Outside the High Court in Belfast, Audrey Simpson, acting CEO of FPA, said: "The action now promised by the department is something that should have happened many years ago.
"It's essential that the guidance should contain clear pathways for referrals for women and directions for aftercare services which is essentially what these proceedings were all about."
Abortion Rights welcomes the DHSSPS's announcement that it will publish draft guidelines, as they are urgently needed to clarify the legal situation. We regret however that it took a legal challenge lasting more than a decade to bring the DHSSPS to this point.
Two steps forward, one step back
Following the good news on draft abortion guidelines, the pro-choice movement in Northern Ireland suffered a setback the very next day, when two MLAs announced they would seek an amendment to Northern Irish law to make it illegal for non-NHS providers to offer terminations in the province.
As the Irish Times reported, "If the amendment is carried and if there is no successful legal challenge to this move, it could have consequences for the operations of the [Marie] Stopes clinic in Belfast. It opened in October as the first private clinic to provide legal abortion on the island of Ireland."
Sinn Féin has said it will oppose the amendment. South Down MLA Caitríona Ruane said seeking to prevent abortion outside the NHS was “clearly an attempt to restrict the right of a woman to obtain a termination in life-threatening circumstances”.
The amendment will be voted on next Tuesday (March 5).