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Fatal foetal abnormality: law change recommended


fatal foetal abnormalities, Northern Ireland, working group, report published, abortion, Report recommends change in abortion law in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland’s inter-departmental working group on the termination of pregnancies in fatal foetal abnormality cases published its report last week.

It has recommended ‘that a change is made to abortion law to provide for termination of pregnancy where the abnormality is of such a nature as to be likely to cause death either before birth, during birth or in the early period after birth’.

It also said that: “Where a diagnosis has been made of such an abnormality, it is to be accepted that the continuance of such a pregnancy poses a substantial risk of serious adverse effect on a women’s health and wellbeing.”

The report was commissioned in 2016 by Northern Ireland’s then Health and Justice Ministers, with a view to informing the Stormont Executive’s policy deliberations.

The focus of the fatal foetal abnormality working group was to consider healthcare and the law in cases of fatal foetal abnormality.

In particular, the group had to reach conclusions on the standard of health and social care provision for those women who have had such a diagnosis and identify any gaps in provision and how they can be closed, including consideration of the need for legislative change to the law on abortion.

Members of the working group have been holding meetings with medical professional bodies and with women who had experienced fatal foetal abnormalities, and their families.

Such a publication was to have been a matter for Ministers, but Northern Ireland has been without its devolved government since power sharing broke down in January 2017, and given the continuing absence of devolved institutions, the departments of Health and Justice decided to release the report on public interest grounds and in line with Freedom of Information responsibilities.

On the issue of terminology and definitions, the working group report stated that fatal foetal abnormality ‘is an acceptable description of a diagnosis made, usually around 20 weeks gestation, of a foetal abnormality which will result in death in utero, at birth or shortly after birth’.

It also noted that modern diagnostic resources ‘allow for very accurate information to be provided to women regarding the condition of the foetus and its viability’.

As the law stands in Northern Ireland, a termination is only permitted in Northern Ireland if a woman’s life is at risk or if there is a risk of permanent and serious damage to her mental or physical health.

And so, in Northern Ireland pregnancy from rape or incest and fatal foetal abnormalities are not considered to be reasons for an abortion to be performed legally, and women from Northern Ireland are forced to travel to Britain to have abortions – if they can afford it.

Key findings and conclusions of the report include:

Some improvements can be made to the care and support of women with a fatal foetal abnormality diagnosis through proposals to improve the standard of care under the existing legal framework;

Health professionals said that, in their professional opinion, retaining the existing legal constraints would continue to place an unacceptable burden on women’s health and wellbeing; and

One of the most compelling cases for change was the overall recognition by those health professionals who spoke to the group that the existing legal framework prevented them from fully meeting their duty of care to all women in this situation and therefore denies those women who wish to terminate the pregnancy, access to proper standards of health care.

In short, health professionals considered the current situation to be professionally untenable.

To read the full report, click here.

Sarah Ewart was forced to travel to Britain in 2013 for an abortion after being told her unborn child wouldn’t survive outside the womb. She went public with her own shattering experience and has campaigned for the law to be changed.

Remarking on this report, she told the Belfast Telegraph: “The law here meant I had to travel to access this healthcare at a time when I needed my family, friends and the support of the medical professionals I was used to around me.

“I hope that these recommendations will lead to a law change that will help women in Northern Ireland be dealt with more compassionately.

“We’ve been knocking the doors at Stormont since 2013, and in that time a number of women have contacted me to say they have been diagnosed with fatal foetal abnormality and don’t have the option to travel.

“When you receive devastating news about losing your baby you are trying to come to terms with that, never mind organising flights, your stay or finding the money.”

“I’m not saying that every woman given a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality needs to have an abortion, but the option needs to be there for those who can’t carry on.

“I hope they will save other women from going through the horrendous ordeal I did,” she said.

“This is not a pro-life or pro-choice issue; in my case there was no life to protect.”

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