London, England, Nov 5, 2019 / 07:01 pm (CNA).- The British government launched Monday a public consultation on a proposed framework for the legal provision of abortion in Northern Ireland. It proposes that elective abortions be available up to 12 or 14 weeks gestation.
“With a legal duty now placed on the Government to change the abortion law in Northern Ireland, this consultation focuses on what new regulatory framework must be put in place for lawful access to abortion services in Northern Ireland,” Julian Smith, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, wrote in a foreword to the consultation begun Nov. 4.
“In doing so, the health and safety of women and girls, and clarity and certainty for the medical profession, are at the forefront of the Government’s consideration,” he stated.
The consultation will close Dec. 16. It includes 15 questions regarding particularities of how legal abortion provision should be made in Northern Ireland.
The government intends to published its response to the consultation and details of the action it will take within 12 weeks after Dec. 16.
Under the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019, passed in July by the British parliament, the government is obliged to create legal access to abortion in the region by March 31, 2020.
The act also provides that since Oct. 22, abortion has been decriminalized in Northern Ireland, and a moratorium has been placed on abortion-related criminal prosecutions. Since Oct. 22, the abortion of a child capable of being born alive, except when the purpose is to preserve the life of the mother, remains unlawful.
Previously, abortion was legally permitted in the region only if the mother’s life was at risk or if there was risk of long term or permanent, serious damage to her mental or physical health.
The NI EF Act was passed because the Northern Ireland Assembly, which has been suspended nearly three years due to a dispute between the two major governing parties, was not able to do business by Oct. 21.
Smith said that among the guiding factors of the provision for legal abortions “will be to ensure that there is a balancing of rights and obligations, as far as practicable, so that no one is compelled to provide services that they have an objection to on the grounds of conscience. This will be recognised and respected, in accordance with other existing medical procedures.”
“We will also continue working with the healthcare profession to ensurethat the legal provisions can also be accompanied by models of care, training, professional guidance and professional standards of practice to assist healthcare professionals in Northern Ireland to clearly understand their legal rights, obligations and duties.”
The government is proposing a legislative framework that will be informed by a UN report based on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. The NI EF Act requires that the government implement the report’s recommendations.
The consultation includes proposals for the grounds for procuring abortion and gestational time limits; who can provide abortions and where; conscientious objection; and notification requirements.
The government proposes that abortion be available unconditionally up to 12 or 14 weeks gestation.
It proposes that “the gestational time limit in circumstances where the continuance of the pregnancy would cause risk of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or girl, or any existing children or her family, greater than the risk of terminating the pregnancy” be either 22 or 24 weeks. It notes that abortion under these circumstances is lawful in England and Wales up to 24 weeks, though “with advances in medicine and healthcare, it could be possible that a fetus having reached a gestation of 22 weeks (21 weeks + 6 days) is viable and thus capable of being born alive.”
In cases of fetal abnormality, the government is proposing that abortion without time limit be available. It also proposes that abortion without time limit be allowed where there is risk to the life of the mother or it is necessary to provent grave permanent injury to her physical or mental health.
The government proposes that a medical pracitioner or any other registered healthcare professional be able to provide abortions, provided they are appropriately trained and competent to provide treatment in accordance with their professional body’s requirements and guidelines.
It is proposed that abortions could be procured in a variety of settings, with the government noting in particular that medical abortions are becoming more common and can be administered at home. It adds that abortions past 22/24 weeks should be provided in hospitals.
While in England, Wales, and Scotland two doctors must certify that there were lawful grounds for abortion, the government is considering whether only one doctor’s certification should be required in Northern Ireland, “as it is likely that there will be a more significant number of people raising conscientious objections than in other parts of the UK. This could create practical difficulties, in particular delays in women accessing termination services, if two medical professionals, both with an understanding of the woman or girl’s situation, are required to certify the grounds for an abortion.”
The government is also proposing that Northern Ireland have a notification process so there can be data to provide transparency around abortion access.
Regarding conscientious objection, the government proposes that it should be allowed for direct participation in the abortion, “but not associated ancillary, administrative or managerial tasks.” This is in line with the rest of the UK. It would also compel participation when the abortion is deemed necessary to save the mother’s life or to prevent grave permanent injury to her physical or mental health, and another healthcare professional is not immediately available.
The government is asking whether buffer zones should be set up around locations where abortions are procured, barring protest in the locations’ immediate vicinity.
The UK will hold a general election Dec. 12, shortly before the public consultation is due to end.
The amendment to the NI EF Act obliging the government to provide for legal abortion in Northern Ireland was introduced by Stella Creasy, a Labour MP who represents a London constituency.
Bills to legalize abortion in cases of fatal fetal abnormality, rape, or incest failed in the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2016.
In October, the High Court in Belfast had ruled that the region’s ban on the abortion of unborn children with fatal abnormalities violated the UK’s human rights commitments.
Northern Irish women have been able to procure free National Health Service abortions in England, Scotland, and Wales since November 2017.
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