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Friday, 15 June, 2001, 19:08 GMT 20:08 UK
Abortion - the Irish Question
BBC reporter Karen Allen
Health correspondent Karen Allen explores the abortion question
Changes to strict laws on abortion have been debated this week, both in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.

Whilst family planning groups in the north won the right for a judicial review of abortion practices, a Dutch floating abortion clinic sailed up the Liffey into Dublin on Friday, with the initial intention of carrying out abortions offshore.

Though the two events were not linked, they have focussed world attention on what remains a highly charged issue.

BBC Health Correspondent Karen Allen looks at the issues.

What are the rules?

The 1967 Abortion Act does not apply in Northern Ireland - there is an acceptance that in some circumstances terminations can go ahead, but there is confusion over precisely what the criteria are - and that is what is behind the current legal challenge.

Family planning groups claim too much is being left to doctors' discretion with some believing only foetal abnormality qualifies a woman to end a pregnancy and others that rape does.

Women's groups are calling on the health department to issue clear guidelines so all women have equal access to the service.

Whether they will get this depends on the outcome of the judicial review.

In the Irish Republic it appears more clear cut though recent court cases have allowed for exceptions.

Performing an abortion on Irish soil would contravene its constitution, but a woman does have the right to travel abroad to seek treatment and the right to access information about abortion.

But a Supreme Court judgement in 1992 made the position ambiguous.

Known as the X case it upheld the right of a 14-year-old girl, threatening to commit suicide, to have an abortion.

Now the Irish Republic's medical council is considering new guidelines on abortion - whether they should go ahead in circumstances where there is a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother.

Abortion refugees

Tight controls on abortion have led to what has been dubbed "abortion refugees", the thousands of women who travel to England for treatment they can not get at home.

Figures suggest that more than 8,000 women come from both sides of the Irish border each year.

Almost always these visits are shrouded in secrecy, prompting concerns from health agencies that they will not seek help back at home afterwards should something go wrong.

Critics accuse both governments of simply exporting the problem.

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15 Jun 01 | Europe
No abortions on 'abortion ship'
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