Page last updated at 12:47 GMT, Monday, 14 December 2009

Abortion guidance must be redrawn

abortion equipment
Abortion is illegal in Northern Ireland unless a woman's life is at risk

The Department of Health in Northern Ireland has failed in a legal bid to stop the complete withdrawal of government guidelines on abortion.

Last month, the High Court ruled they did not properly cover counselling and conscientious objection issues.

Lawyers for the department argued that the sections on these two issues should be the only ones to be reconsidered.

However, Lord Justice Girvan said on Monday that the whole guidance as currently issued was misleading.

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


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The document, which for the first time provided guidance to health professionals in Northern Ireland on terminating pregnancy, was published in March after a series of legal battles.

The anti-abortion group, Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (Spuc), had brought judicial review proceedings last month in an attempt to win a declaration that the decision to publish the advice was unlawful.

In last month's ruling, Lord Justice Girvan stopped short of quashing the document but said it should be withdrawn because some of its advice was misleading.

The judge said that, as the guidelines stand, people could offer counselling which could arguably be seen to be breaking the law.


In Monday's hearing, a barrister for the Department of Health described as "draconian" his order for the advice to be completely withdrawn.

Nicolas Hanna QC expressed concerns that it may lead some to believe the entire document was up for reconsideration.

This guidance requires to be withdrawn for reconsideration because two important sections of it require reconsideration
Lord Justice Girvan

He added: "It's important to recognise that a challenge has been brought to this guidance, most of which has failed.

"In particular, the fundamental challenge to the guidance on the law in Northern Ireland has failed."

David Scoffield, the lawyer representing Spuc, argued there was "a good deal of cross-fertilisation" between the sections criticised and other parts of the guidelines.

"We say it is artificial for the Department to suggest that a number of very small portions of the guidance could simply be excised and the rest of guidance remains utterly unaffected."

Backing his argument, Lord Justice Girvan said: "There were aspects of the counselling section and the conscientious objection section that the court considered did not represent the correct legal position.

"They were significant portions of the guidance and the effect of the errors that the court sought to identify in the judgement made the guidance as issued as a whole misleading and requiring reconsideration.

"I'm not persuaded that one should view the document as complete self-contained, separate issues."

He added: "This guidance requires to be withdrawn for reconsideration because two important sections of it require reconsideration. I don't propose to vary my order in that regard."

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