A High Court judge in Belfast has ruled that Northern Ireland’s guidelines on abortion must be withdrawn, following a judicial review instigated by The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC). The shock judgement will leave healthcare workers in “a state of limbo” regarding the legal status of procedures. Abortion rights groups and healthcare professionals claim that the ruling has “set them back by years” in securing a consistent and safe policy on emergency abortions.
Abortion is currently illegal in Northern Ireland in all circumstances except those where the mother’s life or mental well-being is deemed at risk. After a successful court battle by the Family Planning Association, The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety was forced to publish guidance documents in March 2009 to clarify circumstances where abortion is permitted in Northern Ireland. SPUC then instigated a judicial review, resulting in this decision by Lord Justice Girvan to order the guidance withdrawn and re-written. The Lord Justice ruled that the document failed to give clear guidance in two areas – counselling, and the conscientious objection of healthcare workers.
Reacting to the ruling, Dr. Audrey Simpson OBE of fpa Northern Ireland said: “This is bitterly disappointing and a huge step backwards. Women with a crisis pregnancy and health professionals trying to carry out their duty of care have been badly let down by today’s ruling which, again, leaves the entire situation in a state of limbo.” “We would urge the Department to rewrite the Guidance as soon as possible.”
Marge Berer, chair of Voice for Choice, the national coalition of organisations in the UK who campaign for a woman’s choice on abortion, said: “This ruling is unjust. It further reinforces the inequity of abortion care between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. Women in Northern Ireland are being greatly disadvantaged by it and health professionals supporting them badly let down. It is unacceptable yet again to have the vacuum that the withdrawal of this guideline will leave. We urge with Department to challenge this ruling and re-write the Guidance as soon as possible.”