Abortion report - Calls for guides to go further as more women opt for foreign abortions
Date: Thursday, July 17, 2008
Source: Irish News
Author: Seanin Graham
Women facing crisis pregnancies in Northern Ireland are travelling to Barcelona and Amsterdam for abortions, The Irish News has learned.
Cheap flights and less costly procedures are being linked to the development, which comes amid increasing concerns about the availability of "DIY" abortion pills on the internet.
The Family Planning Association (FPA) said that while official figures showed a decrease in the number of women travelling to Britain for abortions, it was not representative of the total figure for those leaving the north for the procedure.
The FPA also revealed a surge in the number of non-English speaking women seeking its services.
Georgie McCormick of the FPA said the organisation welcomed the new guidelines on abortion from the Department of Health, but said they needed to go further to protect women's health.
She added that there were concerns about large numbers of women continuing to travel outside Northern Ireland for abortions.
"Twenty years ago women said they were going on a shopping trip to London when really they were travelling there for an abortion. Now it's become the norm to say you're taking a weekend break in Barcelona or Amsterdam when you are really having a private procedure," Ms McCormick said.
"Some of these women are travelling to clinics, having the procedure, and coming back in the one day, and are putting their health at risk.
"We are also disturbed by reports of local women buying abortion drugs online, which can be extremely risky and is a new form of backstreet abortion.
"If we ignore this we ignore the health needs of women.
"While we are not calling for a complete extension of the 1967 abortion law to Northern Ireland, we feel some change is needed to the legalisation on grounds other than medical ones."
Ms McCormick said the FPA offices "often" get telephone calls from medical professionals who wish to know where to refer women who are seeking terminations.
"There appears to be a lack of clarity among GPs making referrals, especially for women who have mental health problems, which is very worrying."
Ms McCormick said it is facing new demands with an increasing caseload of women from ethnic minorities, who did not speak English.
"There is a problem with language and some women bring interpreters. However we sometimes have to find interpreters and this is costly - up to £75 per hour in addition to travel expenses," she said.
"We are glad that the guidance refers to services needed for women with special needs and we hope that is carried through."
Anti-abortion campaigners claim that the guidelines will "push abortion through the back door".
The anti-abortion group Precious Life presented a 50,000-name submission to government opposing the draft document.
On average, 70 to 80 abortions are carried out in the north each year.
"Since the Department of Health issued their abortion guidelines, Precious Life volunteers have been working day and night on the campaign," group director Bernie Smith said.
"We are presenting submissions asking the department to amend their guidelines and give protection to our unborn children and their mothers."
Meanwhile, the four main political party leaders in Northern Ireland wrote to Westminster MPs in May to state their opposition to plans to extend the 1967 Abortion Act.
It has been reported that an amendment could be tabled to the Embryology Bill which would extend the Abortion Act to Northern Ireland.
Responding to the initial concerns about the draft guideline paper, Audrey Simpson, director of the FPA, said it did not go far enough in outlining the duty of care for health professionals.
"Anyone who says this is attempt to bring in abortion through the back door obviously hasn't read the guidelines and doesn't have a clue," she said.
"One of our main concerns is that they do not include recommendations or advice for doctors whose patients want to have an abortion outside Northern Ireland."
Breedagh Hughes, general secretary of the Royal College of Midwives (RCM), said the guidelines were "urgently needed" to ensure good practice for both midwives and the women they're caring for.
Ms Hughes revealed that many midwives are becoming "anxious" about carrying out abortions because they are concerned about the legality of the procedure.
"Quite a number of abortions are carried out in Northern Ireland due to foetal abnormalities, which is illegal. The Department of Health say there is a average of 80 abortions a year, but we believe the figure is much higher. They are recorded on the labour ward as stillbirths.
"There has been a noticeable rise in the number of objections from midwives who are concerned that they are complicit in an illegal act.
"With this guidance at least there is a reassurance that they are acting within the law and acting within the best interests of the woman," she said.