Delayed report recommends relaxed abortion laws in case of fatal foetal abnormality

The Departments of Health and Justice have published a significantly delayed report which recommends a change in the law to allow abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality (FFA).

The report was commissioned in summer 2016 and completed by October that year, but its publication was delayed indefinitely by the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive.

The Departments of Health and Justice have now decided to release the 58-page report “on public interest grounds and in line with Freedom of Information responsibilities”, according to a statement issued today.

The working group report recommends “that a change is made to abortion law to provide for termination of pregnancy where the abnormality is of such a nature as to be likely to cause death either before birth, during birth or in the early period after birth”.

It also states: “Where a diagnosis has been made of such an abnormality, it is to be accepted that the continuance of such a pregnancy poses a substantial risk of serious adverse effect on a women’s health and wellbeing.”

On the issue of terminology and definitions, the report states that fatal foetal abnormality “is an acceptable description of a diagnosis made, usually around 20 weeks gestation, of a foetal abnormality which will result in death in utero, at birth or shortly after birth”.

It also notes that modern diagnostic resources “allow for very accurate information to be provided to women regarding the condition of the foetus and its viability”.

Members of the inter-Departmental working group held meetings over the course of their work with medical professional bodies and with women and families who had experience of fatal foetal abnormalities.

The report found that some improvements can be made to the care and support of women with a FFA diagnosis through proposals to improve the standard of care under the existing legal framework.

However, health professionals said retaining the existing legal constraints would continue to place an unacceptable burden on women’s health and wellbeing and prevent them from fully meeting their duty of care to women in that situation; women who wish to terminate the pregnancy are denied access to proper standards of health care.

Health professionals overall “considered the current situation to be professionally untenable”.