New guidance, No Change: responding to the Northern Ireland Termination Guidance Document

The Northern Ireland Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSS&PS) recently produced a guidance document for health and social care professionals on termination of pregnancy in Northern Ireland.

The new document was supposed to correct errors highlighted in previous versions. However while some errors were addressed, several controversial guidelines were added relating to accountability and information collection, new requirements for psychiatric assessments, and limitations on information about available services. In addition, some moralistic and irrelevant language were added to the already flawed guidance document.

A public consultation was purportedly held on the document from 8 April to 29 July 2013, although details of when, where, and with whom these consultations took place are hard to find. The “guidance” document, tellingly entitled, “The limited circumstances for a lawful termination of pregnancy in Northern Ireland,” does not change the law. Rightly so, pro-choice and feminist organizations have responded strongly to the lack of progress and the increase of restrictions.

The following is a roundup of the  detailed reviews and skewering criticisms of the guidance document provided by  leading pro-choice and feminist organizations.


Alliance for Choice Belfast

Alliance for Choice Belfast held three community outreach events to inspect the full text of the guidance document and gather the response of community members. Although Section 1.8 the document claims that the DHSS&PS sought “wide engagement with a range of stakeholder groups through formal consultation exercises and informal discussions,” when Alliance for Choice Belfast invited DHSS&PS to a community consultation event, the Department stated that no representative was available to attend. Alliance for Choice Belfast subsequently requested details from DHSS&PS regarding its public engagement, formal and informal, including dates of events and who participated in these sessions. The full text of the Alliance for Choice Belfast also addresses the concerns line by line of the guidance document with the new restrictions.

Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women

The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) issued a strong statement urging Northern Ireland to expand access to abortion: “[CEDAW is concerned that abortion continues to be illegal in Northern Ireland in all cases except where continuance of the pregnancy threatens the life of the mother, thus making it necessary for women to seek abortion in other parts of the State party.”

The Committee reiterates its view that the State should expedite the amendment of the anti-abortion law in Northern Ireland with a view to decriminalising abortion and “should also ensure that legal abortion not only covers cases of threats to the life of a pregnant woman but also other circumstances such as threats to her health and in cases of rape, incest and serious malformation of the foetus. In addition, like Alliance for Choice Belfast, CEDAW raise concerns about the apparent lack of consultation in the full text of the response.

Belfast Feminist Network

In their full article, the Belfast Feminist Network sharply criticized the obviously moralistic tone permeating the document, which is not grounded in either a legal or medical framework.  For example, the document repeatedly uses the word “mother” to describe pregnant women and the phrase “unborn child.” Given that there is no legal standing for either the tone or the language, Belfast Feminist Network call for more appropriate terminology to replace the current problematic language.

Judith Thurley

Judith Thurley, of Alliance for Choice Belfast, responded to the guidance document personally with concerns about the language used in the document. She calls for the emotive language such as ‘harm’ and ‘death of the unborn child’ to be replaced by medical language. Thurley stated: “The use of the passive voice when referring to women should be avoided as it creates a false sense of passivity. [. . .] Vague terms such as ‘may’, ‘might’ and ‘should’ need to be replaced by clearer more definite terms. [ . . .] The overall anti-choice tone of the document needs to be replaced by more neutral language. It is a document which reveals an oppressive, misogynistic attitude to women in Northern Ireland. This document is of little value in the absence of defining authority.”


Women’s Resource and Development Agency NI

The Women’s Resource and Development Agency NI highlighted the fact that women from Northern Ireland, despite being UK citizens, are denied the right to an abortion under the National Health Service. This has particularly harsh consequences for women with low incomes and women with caring responsibilities, given that women have to make an expensive and time consuming journey to Britain. They urged the DHSS&PS to make women’s health needs a priority in the guidelines for termination of pregnancy in Northern Ireland.

Alliance for Choice Derry

Finally, Alliance for Choice Derry noted in their response that it is now almost twenty years since the UK Government’s Standing Advisory Committee on Human Rights (SACHR) carried out a consultation on abortion.  The SACHR made three recommendations in their 19th Report: 1. That the Government should bring forward options for clearer laws.  2. That the Government should ensure that information on the practice of abortion is collated. 3. That the issue of ‘pecuniary advantage’ should be removed from the debate. Alliance for Choice Derry noted that none of these three recommendations have been addressed.

Alliance for Choice Derry further noted that the CEDAW, in July 2013, reminded the government of its recommendations with regard to the availability of legal abortion in Northern Ireland in 1999 and in 2008. The UK Rapporteur Ruth Kaddari, who is a committee member, said that she was aware of the consultation on the guidance document, that she herself had read it and that it was “ambiguous and restrictive.”

You can read all of these responses in full on the Alliance for Choice Belfast site. We will be monitoring the progress in the North by staying tuned to the Alliance for Choice Belfast Tumblr and getting further updates from Emma Campbell.


Emma Campbell, of Alliance for Choice Belfast, is a documentary photographer and Ph.D candidate based in Belfast and recently exhibited the show When They Put Their Hands Out Like Scales.