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Drop in number of legal abortions as GPs practised in ‘climate of fear’

GPs in Northern Ireland have been unable to properly advise patients seeking an abortion as Government guidelines on the topic have created a ‘climate of fear’, the RCGP has said.

According to statistics released by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS), 23 abortions were carried out in 2013/14 as opposed to 51 in 2012/13.

The RCGP has said that draft guidelines released in 2013 created a ‘climate of fear’, which has led to a drop in the numbers of abortions.

The DHSSPS’s 2013 draft guidelines stated ‘that anyone who unlawfully performs a termination of pregnancy is liable to criminal prosecution with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment’.

The guidelines have since been withdrawn following criticism from the medical profession, with new proposals set to be announced soon.

The draft guidelines permit an abortion when ‘the continuance of the pregnancy threatens the life of the woman, or would adversely affect her physical or mental health in a manner that is ‘real and serious’ and ‘permanent or long term’.’

However, there is no further clarification regarding when this exception would apply.

Dr John O’Kelly, chair of the RCGP in Northern Ireland, said: ‘Our feeling was that these guidelines muddied the waters further, especially when they were perceived to threaten healthcare professionals with prison. That creates a climate of fear and even more uncertainty.’

He added that the college was supportive of more recent proposals put forward by the justice minister, ‘but as yet we have heard nothing as to how this is progressing’.

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