CAN MARIE STOPES LEGALLY PERFORM ABORTIONS IN NORTHERN IRELAND?

Tracey McNeill, vice-president and director of Marie Stopes UK and Europe, claims that the Marie Stopes clinic in Northern Ireland is fully compliant with the law in Northern Ireland. ‘Our centre offers men and women a comprehensive range of services that include family planning and contraception. [...] Our centre offers limited services around termination of pregnancy within the current legal framework’.[1]

Marie Stopes relies on the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety guidelines on ‘the Limited Circumstances for a Lawful termination of Pregnancy in Northern Ireland’.

However, the analysis of the law contained in the DHSSPS guidelines appears to be at variance with the statement of the law on abortion given by the Attorney General, John Larkin QC. In a letter to the Justice Committee dated 16th October 2012, he clearly stated that ‘abortion in Northern Ireland is a criminal offence’, governed by the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 and the Criminal Justice Act (NI) 1945. The central purpose of this law is the protection of the unborn child. A criminal offence cannot be ‘lawful in limited circumstances’. Rather, there is a defence which may be raised.[2] This defence is not automatic and depends on the circumstances of the act carried out.

There is a difference between direct abortion, which is when the doctor directly intends the termination of the pregnancy before the unborn child is viable or acts with the specific and deliberate intent to terminate the life of the unborn child,[3] and appropriate medical treatment administered to a pregnant woman to directly cure a proportionately serious pathological condition.[4] If through careful treatment of the pregnant woman’s pathological conditionthe unborn child inadvertently dies or is injured, this is tragic and, if unintentional, is not unethical.[5] There are no medical conditions requiring a direct abortion.[6]

A doctor may try to argue that he or she performed an abortion to save the life of the pregnant woman or to prevent a real and serious adverse effect on her physical or mental health. However, when expert medical evidence is adduced which shows that the death of the child was not required to save the life of the pregnant woman or to prevent injury to her physical or mental health, the doctor should not be able to rely on the defence.

Marie Stopes claim that it will ‘only offer a termination up to nine weeks of pregnancy.’ How could Marie Stopes possibly rely on the defence that its healthcare professionals held an honest belief, and had reasonable grounds to believe, that direct abortion was necessary to save the pregnant woman’s life or to prevent injury to her physical or mental health when the pregnant woman was less than nine weeks pregnant?   

Marie Stopes proudly professes to be the UK’s leading provider of sexual and reproductive healthcare services. However, direct abortion should not be understood as a ‘health service’, a ‘treatment’ for a physical or mental condition, as it is in fact the deliberate killing of an unborn child, and a criminal offence in Northern Ireland.

[1] Official Report of the Justice Committee, Marie Stopes International: Compliance with Criminal Law on Abortion in Northern Ireland, 10 January 2013.  

[2] Association of Catholic Lawyers in Ireland, ACLI Give Evidence to the Health Committee on Erroneous Abortion Guidelines. Accessed at http://catholiclawyersblog.wordpress.com/2013/07/25/new-abortion-guidance-for-northern-ireland-contain-serious-legal-errors/.

[3] No. 45 of the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (November 2009). Accessed at http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/health-care/upload/Ethical-Religious-Directives-Catholic-Health-Care-Services-fifth-edition-2009.pdf.

[4] No. 47 of the Ethical and Religious Directive for Catholic Health Care Services, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (November 2009). Accessed at http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/health-care/upload/Ethical-Religious-Directives-Catholic-Health-Care-Services-fifth-edition-2009.pdf.

[5] Official Position Statement of the Association of Pro-Life Physicians. Accessed at http://www.prolifephysicians.org/rarecases.htm

[6] Professor Eamon O’Dwyer, Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at NUI Galway.

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