Abortion and fatal foetal abnormality in Northern Ireland

The Northern Ireland Departments of Health and Justice have published a significantly-delayed report which recommends a change in the law to allow abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality (FFA). The report was commissioned in summer 2016 and completed by October of that year but its publication was delayed indefinitely by the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive.

The report’s principal conclusions and recommendations are as follows:

“12. The working group concluded that:

  • some improvements can be made to the care and support of women with a fatal fetal abnormality diagnosis through the proposals to improve the standard of care under the existing legal framework;
  • there is a substantial body of evidence to underwrite the need for legislative change in relation to termination of pregnancy for fatal fetal abnormality;
  • health professionals have identified a number of scenarios where they consider their duty of care to patients is being compromised;
  • there are woman who face risks to their physical health, mental health including acute trauma and distress and possible financial hardship, because they cannot access the health service they require in this jurisdiction.

13. The group notes that:

(1) the improvements to services for women with fatal fetal abnormalities identified by the PHA and outlined in Chapter 5 should improve the care and support for some women with a diagnosis of fatal fetal abnormality, though not women who choose to end their pregnancy;

And recommends:

(2) 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. ‘In the early period after birth’ means those circumstances where life might still be present after birth, but there is no medical treatment which would make the condition survivable and the only option is appropriate, specialised end of life care. 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.”

Better late than never, perhaps…

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