Northern Ireland’s new abortion guidelines will decrease abortion, pro-life group says

Pete Baklinski BELFAST, Northern Ireland, March 31, 2016 (LifeSiteNews)

One month after Northern Irish minority parties were stunningly defeated in opening a door to abortion on demand by attempting to slip amendments into a government omnibus bill, the country’s Department of Health quietly issued a revised set of abortion guidelines that one pro-life group says may decrease abortion.

“I don’t believe the new guidance will make obtaining an abortion easier,” Liam Gibson, the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children’s (SPUC) Northern Irish organizer, told LifeSiteNews.

“In fact, it’s likely that this will have the opposite effect and make doctors much more conscious about their obligations not to consent to requests for abortion, and also to be much more circumspect about approving abortions that might be unlawful and therefore risking their career,” he said.

The Life Institute
The Life Institute

Current Northern Ireland law allows for abortion to “preserve the life of the woman” or if there is a “risk of real and serious adverse effect on her physical or mental health, which is rather long term or permanent.”

The newly revised guidance, updated from 2009, states that it “cannot, and does not, make any change to the law of Northern Ireland. In the event of any conflict between this guidance and the law, the latter will always prevail.”

In 2009, SPUC legally challenged the abortion guidelines that were released at that time, arguing that they distorted the law so that “no abortion in Northern Ireland would be considered impermissible.” SPUC also took issue with the guidelines compelling doctors, nurses and midwives to facilitate abortions, even if contrary to their moral beliefs. The Health Department ultimately decided to withdraw the guidelines before the case was heard, reissuing a revision in 2010 that did not include the problematic sections on counselling and conscientious objection.

Gibson said the new guidelines clear up the ambiguity of the previous ones where abortion as a legal option was “open to a wide spectrum of interpretation.”

“These are much more precise, much more focused on the obligations that clinicians must consider before making a decision either to authorize an abortion or to take part in an abortion,” he said.

For instance, Gibson said that one improvement when compared to the 2009 guidelines is that abortion cannot even be considered as an option unless the legal requirements are met.

“In fact, a doctor must refuse all requests for an abortion which would be unlawful. This is not a matter of conscience and he or she is not obliged to refer the patient to another doctor,” he said.

Gibson said that cases where a mother’s pregnancy genuinely threatens her life are “vanishingly small.”

“With advances in medical science, it’s possible that many doctors may never encounter such a situation in their entire career,” he said.

Pro-lifers will be pleased to see that the guidelines state that if a pregnant mother requires a treatment that could harm the baby, and if the baby is capable of surviving outside the womb, then “steps must be taken to try to preserve its life.” The guidelines then, however, go on to state that the life of the pregnant woman is to be given “priority” and that there is “no upper gestational age limit as to when a pregnancy may be terminated if a medical practitioner decides in good faith that continuance of the pregnancy threatens the life of the woman.”

Concerningly, the guidelines make it clear that pro-life doctors and nurses “may not refuse to participate” in an abortion in “emergency situations” despite moral or religious objections. The guidelines do state, however, that “any objection on grounds of conscience should, as far as practicable, be recognised and respected” and that, except in an emergency situation, “no-one with moral/religious objections should be compelled to participate in a termination of pregnancy, or handle fetal remains resulting from a termination of pregnancy.”

Also of concern is that pro-life doctors who will not participate in helping a woman who is legally eligible for abortion in a non-medical emergency must nevertheless make an effective referral to a doctor who will.

The guidelines also state that women who fail to be eligible for abortion in Northern Ireland may lawfully be given information about other neighboring countries where abortion laws are less strict.

Gibson pointed out how the new guidelines make it clear that medical professionals are “obliged to refuse to take part in any abortion which is unlawful.”

“Again this is not a matter of conscience. Anyone who knowingly assists in such an abortion faces legal penalties as severe as those facing the person who actually performs the abortion,” he said.

He also noted how the guidelines remind healthcare workers that they are legally required to pass on information which could lead to the prosecution of those responsible for carrying out unlawful abortions.

“Abortion advocates are likely to find that the publication of this guidance will not lead to greater access to abortion in Northern Ireland. As a result there will probably be renewed pressure on politicians to change the law itself,” he said.

In conclusion, Gibson said that while the weaknesses in current abortion law still exist, the new guidelines, nevertheless, “strengthen the position of doctors and other medical professionals who don’t want to be involved in abortion, and who can perhaps now reel in their colleagues who might have a much more liberal attitude toward the law.”

Northern Ireland’s leading pro-life group, Precious Life, broadly criticized the guidelines for “sanitiz[ing]” the violence of abortion.

“The Department of Health have treated the law on abortion in Northern Ireland and the unborn child, the vulnerable and defenceless victim of that crime, with utter contempt in these latest guidelines,” director Bernadette Smyth told LifeSiteNews.

“In a desperate attempt to appease those in the healthcare profession who are tired of looking over their shoulders and want to be freed from the shackles of threatened prosecution, the Department of Health have dared to ‘sanitise’ the act of killing an unborn child by downplaying the ‘chilling’ criminal nature of this abominable act and wrongly presenting it as simply another ‘health and social care service’.

“It is vital that the lives of both mother and unborn child are respected and protected equally in hospitals throughout Northern Ireland. I will be meeting with my legal advisers next week to further discuss all of our concerns with these guidelines.”

Northern Ireland abortion guidelines March 2016

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