Significant changes to Northern Ireland’s abortion laws have come into force.
The new framework means terminations can be carried out in all circumstances in the first 12 weeks of a pregnancy.
Beyond 12 weeks, abortions are legal in other situations – for example, there is no term limit in cases of fatal fetal abnormalities.
Officials in Stormont are still deciding how to put the new laws into practice.
Last July, MPs at Westminster voted to decriminalise abortion in Northern Ireland and create new laws.
Prior to that vote, abortion was only allowed in very limited circumstances.
It fell to the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) to come up with a framework to oversee the provision for abortion services.
Last week, the regulations were made public for the first time and set out when and where abortions could take place, as well as who could carry them out.
Terminations will be legal up to 12 weeks without conditions.
A limit of 24 weeks will apply in situations where continuing the pregnancy would involve risk of injury to the woman’s physical or mental health.
No time limit will apply in cases of fatal fetal abnormality, where there is a substantial risk that the fetus would die or, if born, would suffer a severe mental or physical impairment.
There will also be no time limit for an abortion if there is a risk to the life of the mother, greater than if the pregnancy is not terminated – or, the government says, “where necessary to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or girl, including in cases of immediate necessity”.
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Medical professionals who can perform an abortion include a doctor, a registered nurse or a registered midwife.
Conscientious objection will apply – meaning those medical professionals who do not want to participate in carrying out a termination will not be obliged to do so.
Plenty of questions remain
The changes really are significant, allowing terminations in all circumstances in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and beyond that in other situations with no term limits applying in cases of fatal fetal abnormalities.
For some, the law will not go far enough. For others, it will go far beyond what they would support.
Some medical professionals have said they remain concerned about whether the clause on conscientious objection will protect them.
Aside from the ethical debate about term limits, there are also real questions about how these abortion services will work.
Read more from Jayne here.
In order for an abortion to take place, one medical professional will be required to certify the pregnancy has not exceeded 12 weeks, or that a termination is immediately required.
Covid-19 travel restrictions
Terminations on other grounds will require the certificate to be signed by two medical professionals.
The framework makes provision for abortions to be carried out in GP premises, clinics provided by a health and social care trust and HSC hospitals.
It will be up to Stormont’s Department of Health to implement the framework, including counselling and other support for women and girls as abortion becomes a new healthcare service in Northern Ireland.
Last year, the UK government decided to allow women in Northern Ireland to access free abortion services in England, ahead of the new framework coming into place.
It said the arrangement will continue until it is “confident that service provision in Northern Ireland is available to meet women’s needs”.
However travelling has been restricted due to the Covid-19 crisis.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health said: “Given the delay between the regulations coming into force and the establishment of any new local abortion services, the department had agreed with the Department of Health and Social Care that women from Northern Ireland could continue to use the services offered in England.
“The Covid-19 situation will require reconsideration of how this service can be made available to women living in Northern Ireland.”