Midwives working in Northern Ireland need no longer fear prosecution for referring women for abortions elsewhere in the UK, it was confirmed today.
Northern Ireland’s director of public prosecutions has said there is “no risk” of criminal prosecution for healthcare professionals referring women to hospitals and clinics in the rest of the UK.
“Midwives have been operating in a climate of fear of prosecution”
The confirmation was disclosed to Amnesty International, according to a statement issued by the human rights charity.
The Royal College of Midwives welcomed the announcement, saying it brought an end to a “climate of fear” that had existed since new guidance on abortions in the region was issued in 2013.
Pregnancy termination is possible in Northern Ireland but the law is much stricter, with abortions only allowed in very specific circumstances.
They are permitted if a woman’s life is at risk or there is a permanent or serious risk to her physical or mental health.
However, rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormalities are not circumstances in which an abortion can be performed legally in Northern Ireland.
Fear of prosecution among health professionals when it came to making referrals had prevented women getting the help they needed, noted RCM director for Northern Ireland Breedagh Hughes.
“Midwives have been operating in a climate of fear of prosecution since 2013,” she said.
“Women in Northern Ireland have not been getting the care and referrals to services in the UK that they really need because of the threat which we now know does not exist,” she said.
“This is a welcome development and will enable us to look after women who seek or need abortion services,” she stated.
Barra McGrory QC had told Amnesty that he could “see no risk of criminal prosecution for NHS employees in Northern Ireland who refer women to NHS hospitals and clinics in the rest of the UK”.
“This is hugely important and should relieve the profession of this chilling threat”
The charity described the statement as a “significant breakthrough in the fight for abortion rights”.
Its Northern Ireland campaigns manager Grainne Teggart 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,” she said. “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.”
The RCM said it was now calling on the Department of Health in Northern Ireland to issue clear guidance on abortion referrals for midwives, doctors and other health professionals.
In June this year, the UK government announced women from Northern Ireland seeking an abortion in England would be able to undergo the procedure for free on the NHS.
Previously they had been required to pay for treatment in the private sector.