Draft abortion guidelines due next week

Draft abortion guidelines due next week

Draft guidelines on abortion in Northern Ireland are to go before the Northern Ireland Executive next week, it has been revealed.

Health Minister Edwin Poots is to submit a paper seeking approval to go out to public consultation on the issue, the High Court was told.

The development came as a two-day legal challenge to the failure to publish information on the termination of pregnancies was set to begin.

But the case was halted following confirmation of Mr Poots' new position.

The Family Planning Association (FPA) had launched judicial review proceedings against the Department of Health in a bid to have guidance issued.

Under current law abortion is illegal in Northern Ireland, except in limited circumstances where the mother's life or mental well-being are considered at risk.

In 2009 the Department published a document which, for the first time, provided guidance to health professionals in Northern Ireland on terminating pregnancy.

But later that year the High Court ruled it did not properly cover counselling and conscientious objection issues.

The guidelines were held to be misleading and had to be withdrawn for reconsideration.

In court on Wednesday senior counsel for the FPA, Tony McGleenan QC, disclosed that a letter was received by his solicitors Edwards and Co on Tuesday night confirming the Minister's plans.

Mr Poots is to submit a paper to ministerial colleagues seeking approval to consult on a version of the guidance on termination of pregnancy.

The letter states: "While the draft paper will be in circulation by March 7, 2013, it should be born in mind that the Minister does not control the Executive agenda."

"The Minister would propose consulting on the guidance in due course and hopes to secure the support in principle of Executive colleagues at the earliest possible stage."

It's essential that the guidance should contain clear pathways for referrals for women and directions for aftercare services which is essentially what these proceedings were all about.

Audrey Simpson, Family Planning Assocation NI chief executive

Mr McGleenan told the court that the position meant there was no need to continue with the case as his client has achieved its aims.

But sources close to the Department, which was represented by Attorney General John Larkin QC, claimed it was not a victory for the FPA.

It was pointed out that the Association had been seeking a declaration that non-publication was unlawful and an order for information to be issued.

Following the development Mr Justice Treacy agreed to dismiss the case.

He will decide the issue of costs in the case at a later stage.

Outside the court Audrey Simpson, chief executive of the FPA in Northern Ireland, called for the urgent issuing of guidance following the Minister's commitment.

In a statement issued through her solicitors she said: "It's unfortunate that the Family Planning Association had to resort to legal action to achieve this result.

"The action now promised by the Department is something that should have happened many years ago.

"The Family Planning Association stated this process almost 12 years ago and it's very interesting the note that in that period public opinion on the issue has changed significantly."

Breedagh Hughes, director of the Royal College of Midwives in Northern Ireland said there was still not enough progress made on guidelines.

"We are frustrated that there is no clear timescale," she said.

"This is the third or fourth consultation on this particular piece of guidance, it has been consulted to death.

"If they cannot get it right this time they will never get it right."

She added: "We could be here next year with no clear guidance. I would have liked to have seen a clear timescale, however some progress has been made and we must be grateful for that."

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