Medical Staff In Northern Ireland Will Not Face Prosecution For Referring Women For Treatment
The Debrief: This is a significant moment in the fight for abortion rights in Northern Ireland
Today, Northern Ireland’s Director of Public Prosecutions, Barra McGrory QC, said that medical staff in Northern Ireland who refer women to hospitals in the rest of the UK for treatment will not face prosecution.
McGrory’s public confirmation followed a request for clarification on his position from Amnesty International; the Director of Public Prosecutions said that he sees no risk of criminal prosecution for NHS employees in Northern Ireland who refer women for treatment elsewhere in the UK.
The controversial issue of abortion rights in Northern Ireland, where the 1967 UK Abortion Act does not apply, was highlighted by Theresa May’s alliance with the DUP following June’s election result. However, campaign groups, locally and internationally, had long been working to improve the situation for women affected as well as drive change for years.
There have been reports of women traveling to receive treatment as well as women who cannot afford to travel and attempt to access abortion at home, whether that’s by buying pills online or taking matters into their own hands out of desperation, facing criminal charges.
Amnesty Northern Ireland have said that this is a significant moment in the fight for abortion rights there. The question of possible criminal charges for medical professionals in Northern Ireland has overshadowed Theresa May’s government’s announcement that women from the country would be able to access free treatment elsewhere in the UK following pressure from campaign groups. There were serious questions about the implications of the announcement and whether it would be workable in practice.
Grainne Teggart, Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland Campaigns Manager, said:
‘The threat of prosecution has long loomed over medical professionals in Northern Ireland, who have previously felt unable to refer women to other parts of the UK for abortion services for fear of criminal prosecution. This has acted as a significant barrier for women seeking to access abortion.’
‘The Public Prosecution Service has now stated clearly they can see no risk of criminal prosecution in these circumstances. This is hugely important and should relieve the profession of this chilling threat. This is a significant breakthrough in the fight for abortion rights here.’
Amnesty also received clarification from Northern Ireland’s Public Prosecution Service that ‘advocating and promoting abortion’ is not an offence despite suggestions to the contrary in guidance published by the Department of Health in 2016. They are now urging the Department of Health (Northern Ireland) to revise their guidance and questioning why such suggestions were published in the first place.
Grainne Teggart added:
‘We call on the Department of Health to urgently revise their guidance and work closely with the UK Equalities Office to ensure a clear pathway for women accessing abortion in the rest of the UK.’
As The Debrief reported earlier this year, abortions are only allowed in Northern Ireland if a woman's life is at risk or there is a permanent or serious risk to her physical or mental health. Rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormalities are not circumstances in which they can be performed legally.
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