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U.K. Advocates Tussle Over North Ireland Abortion Guidelines

BY GARETH PEOPLES, REGISTER CORRESPONDENT

| Posted 3/17/10 at 1:00 AM

CNS photo from Reuters
 

BELFAST, Northern Ireland — The people of Northern Ireland face another assault on their pro-life province, mounted by the British Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety.

The department has reissued guidelines relating to the law on abortion that were deemed unacceptable by pro-life groups in the province.

Michael McGimpsey, a member of the Ulster Unionist Party, is minister of health, social services and public safety. He was elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly and subsequently appointed by his party to the health post.

Bernadette Smyth of the pro-life organization Precious Life described it as an attempt to “legalize abortion through the back door.”

Although the rest of the United Kingdom has one of the most permissive abortion laws in Europe, abortion is illegal in Northern Ireland, except in rare cases where it is deemed necessary to preserve the life of the mother. Under the law, abortion is a felony offense when performed for any other reason.

In 2001, the Family Planning Association, a pro-abortion organization, took the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to court over the department’s decision not to publish guidelines on abortion for health-care professionals. These guidelines are a formal directive issued as an official interpretation of the law, explaining the circumstances in which abortion can be performed. They are designed to inform the clinical judgment of all health-care professionals practicing in Northern Ireland.

According to the health department, “The lawfulness of any proposed termination depends on the clinical judgment of the medical practitioner who is to carry out the termination.”

In 2004, the Northern Ireland Court of Appeals ruled that the guidelines were necessary, overturning the previous decision of the High Court (similar to a state supreme court).

In 2007, the Department of Health issued the guidelines, which were presented to the Legislative Assembly (Northern Ireland’s elected body) for approval.

An enormous grassroots pro-life campaign was mobilized before the vote in November 2007, when the guidelines were overwhelmingly rejected. Only two of the 108 members of the Legislative Assembly voted for the guidelines; the other 106 voted against them.


Prepared to Go Back to Court

The guidelines were reissued in March 2009 and were once again rejected by pro-life campaigners, who found serious legal flaws within the document.

The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) took the department to court in an attempt to have the guidelines withdrawn because of those legal flaws.

On Nov. 30, the High Court’s Lord Justice Girvan, ruled that the guidelines had to be withdrawn. Girvan found that the guidelines failed to deal properly with the issues of conscientious objection to abortion and counseling on abortion.

He said the guidelines were open to misinterpretation, calling the language “ambiguous” in leaving doctors and staff unsure as to what was expected of them.

The judge said the guidelines needed to be absolutely clear; otherwise they represented “a trap to the unwary.”

On Dec. 15, the Department of Health again went to court to appeal the decision. Judge Girvan upheld his ruling saying, “The effect of the errors that the court sought to identify in the judgment made the guidance as issued as a whole misleading and requiring reconsideration. I’m not persuaded that one should view the document as complete self-contained, separate issues.”

In spite of this, the department went ahead on Feb. 8 and reissued the guidelines with exactly the same wording, but excluding two sections the judge had declared were not accurate.

A spokesman said, “In order to ensure that health professionals were not operating in the absence of guidance on the circumstances under which a lawful termination of pregnancy may be carried out in Northern Ireland, and after seeking legal advice, the department issued interim guidelines to health professionals on Feb. 8, 2010. All references to counseling and conscientious objection have been withdrawn from the interim guidelines.”

Audrey Simpson of Family Planning Association, which has been pushing for abortion in Northern Ireland, welcomed the news, saying, “I am delighted that the department has reissued the guidelines. We were dismayed when the judge ordered the withdrawal, especially when he rejected SPUC arguments in all but two cases. We want the department to give us a time scale to get the guidelines implemented, as we realize these things take time.”

Liam Gibson from the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children said, “It’s simply irrational and perverse for the Department of Health to reissue its guidance on abortion law without giving any weight to the findings of the High Court. Even though flaws had been identified only in the aspects of the guidance dealing with counseling and the rights of medical personnel to non-participation in abortion, it was clear from Lord Justice Girvan’s judgment on Nov. 30 that the guidance as a whole ought to be withdrawn.”

He went on to say, “We’re calling on the department to withdraw the guidelines immediately, but we are prepared to go back to court if necessary to make sure that it is withdrawn.”


‘Will Lead to Confusion’

Pat Ramsey, a member of the Legislative Assembly and vice chairman of the All Party Pro-Life Assembly Group, said, “This will lead to confusion in the health department. It has not gone through a select committee in the Assembly. With over 95% of Assembly members of a pro-life disposition, this goes against the will of the people of Northern Ireland. Also, given the judge’s original ruling, I think the people of Northern Ireland will find the department in contempt.”

Ramsey questioned the willingness of the health department to comply with the judge’s ruling, asking, “Did the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety write to Health Trusts to advise them of the order of the High Court in the recent case of SPUC v. DHSSPS that the guidelines be withdrawn; and if so, what is the date of such communication?”

Ramsey has promised to raise these issues for debate in the Assembly, in order to “ensure the protection and safety of the unborn child.”

Gareth Peoples writes from Ballykelly, Northern Ireland.