On May 22nd, 2020, the House of Commons Library published a briefing paper, CBP 8909, detailing the recent changes to the abortion legal framework in Northern Ireland.
Section 9 of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019, changed the law on abortion in NI, decriminalising it and placing a regulatory duty on the UK Government to ensure that recommendations in paragraphs 85 and 86 of the CEDAW report are implemented.
The new regulations came into effect on March 31st, 2020. These regulations will be debated in the Commons on June 8th and in the Lords the following week, and then there will be a vote on whether to approve these or not; this parliamentary process needs to be completed before June 19th.
As one would expect, this is a highly contested matter, with strongly opposing views being expressed by all lobbies. Here are just a few of the issues which will be raised in the upcoming debates:
- Whether it is right for Westminster to impose these regulations on the Northern Ireland Assembly, given that abortion is a devolved matter.
- Whether there is a legal obligation on the UK Government, and thus also on the NIA, to implement the recommendations made by the UN in the CEDAW report.
- Whether it is right for the proposed abortion regulations in NI to be much more liberal than, or different from, those applying across the rest of the UK.
- How and by whom will the Department of Health in NI be directed to implement the required abortion services.
A lot can still change over the next two weeks, and so in writing this I am assuming that abortion services will be legal in NI and will need to comply with CEDAW. I am writing from a public health perspective and I’m not making any statement or judgement about abortion ethics. I’m not addressing every point made in paragraphs 85 and 86, just selecting three which I think are the least contentious and could be adopted by any of the lobbies.
I recommend the implementation of professional, comprehensive counselling for all women presenting for a termination of pregnancy. This should be provided independently from the abortion service providers (ie not by them) and be designed to fully deliver against both paragraph 86(a) of CEDAW and the DHSC RSOP 12.
Women deserve to be given impartial, accurate and evidence-based information, and be offered the opportunity to discuss their options and choices with an appropriately trained counsellor. Counselling must be non-directive and non-judgemental and should not create barriers or delays. Counsellors should undergo continuous professional development and training similar to other professionals.
The NIA needs to focus attention and resources into improving the support services needed for women facing a crisis pregnancy and for those with concerns and worries about how they might cope with motherhood. This of course applies to those choosing to carry to term a disabled child, but equally so to those with any other concerns and issues raised by their pregnancy. The proposed grounds (indications) for a legal abortion in NI are broad and so support services need to also be just as broad, on a matching basis.
Nuance and Indications.
We need to be much more nuanced in how we regulate the indications for abortion and what we term as abortion.
An abortion on-demand by choice of the woman is not the same as a medical intervention to save the life of the woman or to remove a fetus or baby after an intrauterine death.
We need to stop conflating these.
An abortion, if we must call it that, should be accepted by all as necessary, legal, and ethical in each and all the following.
- To save the life of the woman.
- Intrauterine death.
- Fatal fetal abnormalities.
These services need to be provided in NI with compassion and respect.