Response to the Consultation on ‘A New Legal Framework for Abortion Services in Northern Ireland’

Response to the Consultation on ‘A New Legal Framework for Abortion Services in Northern Ireland’ from the Catholic Bishops of Northern Ireland

Summary

The Catholic Bishops of Northern Ireland wish to make clear that the new abortion law established under the provisions of the Northern Ireland Act 2019, is an unjust law. As a consequence, no one is obliged in conscience to cooperate with any action permitted by this law which directly and intentionally leads to the killing of an unborn child. Indeed, everyone is morally obliged to oppose this law by conscientious objection.

All Christians and people of good will are obliged in conscience not to cooperate formally in abortion services, even if permitted by civil legislation. The New Regulatory Framework in Northern Ireland, should provide all health professionals including midwives, nurses and ancillary staff working in hospitals and other community settings with the right to refuse to participate in any aspect of the delivery of abortion services such as consultation, administration, preparation, in addition to the direct and intentional act of abortion itself. Pharmacists working in hospitals and pharmaceutical outlets in the wider community should also be free to exercise conscientious objection when asked to provide or stock medications designed to assist another person in carrying out an abortion.

Those who have recourse to conscientious objection must be protected from legal penalties, disciplinary proceedings, discrimination or any adverse impact on career prospects.  Obstetrics and Gynaecology must not become the domain of only those doctors and other medical staff who are willing to participate in abortion services.

➢ It is our view that the proposal to provide unrestricted access to abortion up to 12/14 weeks will in effect amount to abortion on demand.

➢ We wish to make it clear that we are completely opposed to all attempts to include any school premises as an option for the provision of abortion pills or any other abortion service… With regard to Catholic Schools, central to our school ethos is the promotion of the dignity and life of every human being. The provision of abortion services in our schools would be contrary to  everything a Catholic School stands for with regard to respect for all citizens and the promotion of the common good. Similarly, any inclusion within the school curriculum of information about how to access abortion services would fundamentally undermine the Catholic Ethos of our schools.

➢ Many women seek abortion services for a range of reasons.  Often they are distressed and in a state of panic and the pressure and stress they experience can lead them to make a premature decision that many regret rather than taking the time to consider all their options. It is our view that urgent consideration be given to the inclusion of appropriate counselling services and a significant time period be provided for careful reflection on the serious nature of a decision to abort the unborn child.

➢ Factors such as poverty, relationship difficulties, housing, child care, safeguarding etc., are well known to influence women who are considering an abortion. Existing services which address these and other factors should be made known to women who are considering abortion.

➢ A significant number of women require a range of services after having had an abortion. … Existing post-abortion services should be made known to all women seeking abortion services.

Every woman who is considering abortion has a right to receive accurate and appropriate  information regarding the risks involved in abortion as well as the range of mental and physical conditions that can emerge as a result of having had an abortion.

➢ Guidance on the collection of accurate data, including the reasons why women seek to have an abortion, should be provided within the New Regulatory Framework.  This data shall be essential if there is to be meaningful public scrutiny.

 

Full text of submission

 

Northern Ireland Act 2019

A civil law which legitimises the direct and intentional killing of innocent human beings by means of abortion disregards their inviolable right to life. By seeking to establish regulations and procedures to facilitate the killing of unborn children, which society exists to protect and care for, such a law undermines the common good and the equality of all persons before the law. Therefore, this law cannot be regarded as possessing any authentic juridical validity or any morally binding force.

For this reason, we the Catholic Bishops of Northern Ireland wish to make clear that the new abortion law established under the provisions of the Northern Ireland Act 2019, is an unjust law. As a consequence, no one is obliged in conscience to cooperate with any action permitted by this law which directly and intentionally leads to the killing of an unborn child. Indeed, everyone is morally obliged to oppose this law by conscientious objection.

Conscientious Objection

Direct and intentional abortion is an unjust act against the innocent human life of an unborn child. The injustice inherent in such an act exists regardless of the unborn child’s stage of development, state of health, or the circumstances in which he/she was conceived.  To refuse to participate in committing such an injustice is not only a moral duty; it is also a basic human right that should be acknowledged and protected by civil law.

We understand that the new regulatory framework will provide a statutory right for health care professionals to conscientiously object to participating in the provision of treatment relating to abortion services.

The provision of this statutory right must ensure that health professionals will not be required to perform any action that constitutes participation in direct and intentional abortion.  With regard to the circumstances in which such a right can be exercised, we wish to draw attention to the following:

  1. All Christians and people of good will are obliged in conscience not to cooperate formally in abortion services, even if permitted by civil legislation.
  2. Since the  Abortion Act 1967 as amended by  the Human Embryology Act 1990 was enacted , a ‘conscience clause’ establishing that ‘no person’ would be ‘under any duty’ of ‘participation’ in any ‘treatment’ or ‘activity’ was authorised.  The Supreme Court interpreted the concept of ‘participation’ narrowly in the Doogan case[1], excluding many of the ancillary and managerial roles associated with an abortion procedure.  The Abortion Act does not apply to Northern Ireland and opposition to its introduction is opposed by the main political parties.  The Secretary of State now has an opportunity to properly consider the question of conscience, particularly having regard to article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights.  Any clause should make appropriate provision for ‘reasonable accommodation’ and address the issue that was not directly considered by the Supreme Court in Doogan.  Further, such a clause should have proper regard for the views of the people of Northern Ireland in relation to abortion.  The statutory right to exercise conscientious objection, envisaged by the New Regulatory Framework in Northern Ireland, should provide all health professionals including midwives, nurses and ancillary staff working in hospitals and other community settings with the opportunity to refuse to participate in any aspect of the delivery of abortion services such as consultation, administration, preparation, in addition to the direct and intentional act of abortion itself.
  3. Pharmacists working in hospitals and pharmaceutical outlets in the wider community should also be free to exercise conscientious objection when asked to provide or stock medications designed to assist another person in carrying out an abortion.  This co-operation in abortion services can never be justified either by invoking the freedom of others or appealing to the fact that civil law permits or requires it.
  4. With regard to those who exercise conscientious objection on grounds of religious belief, account ought to be taken of the relevant equality impact requirements imposed specifically on Northern Ireland by Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and in particular Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
  5. Referral to another health professional who does not have a conscientious objection to abortion services, is not an option for a health provider who is a Christian, since in those circumstances, he or she would still be co-operating  in the process  to access abortion services. Therefore, the New Regulatory Framework needs to make provision for an alternative referral procedure when health professionals with a conscientious objection to abortion find themselves in a situation where the woman has decided that she wants access to abortion services.
  6. Those who have recourse to conscientious objection must be protected from legal penalties, disciplinary proceedings, discrimination or any adverse impact on career prospects.  Obstetrics and Gynaecology must not become the domain of only those doctors and other medical staff who are willing to participate in abortion services.
  7. In the case of an emergency arising as a direct result of an abortion, medical staff who conscientiously object to direct and intentional abortion are still morally obliged to provide whatever care is necessary to save the mother’s life, when requested to do so.  Further, the Catholic Church recognises that in intervening to save the life of a mother, where there is no intention to destroy the life of the unborn child, the unintended consequence of such an intervention may result in the death of the child. Such an intervention that results in the unintended death of the unborn child is in no way comparable with the direct and intentional destruction of the child in the womb.

Health and Safety

In the introduction to the Consultation document, ‘A New Legal Framework for Abortion Services in Northern Ireland’, the Secretary of State underlines the focus of the consultation process when he says, ‘…the health and safety of women and girls, and clarity and certainty for the medical profession are at the forefront of the Government’s consideration’.

With regard to health and safety of women and girls, the Catholic Bishops wish to express the following concerns:

    • It is our view that the proposal to provide unrestricted access to abortion up to 12/14 weeks will in effect amount to abortion on demand.
    • We understand that a range of options are being considered with regard to where abortion services will be provided for women and girls. We wish to make it clear that we are completely opposed to all attempts to include any school premises as an option for the provision of abortion pills or any other abortion service. Apart from the obvious health and safety concerns, we object on grounds of medical and social ethics to any school being regarded as an appropriate setting for abortion services. With regard to Catholic Schools, central to our school ethos is the promotion of the dignity and life of every human being. The provision of abortion services in our schools would be contrary to  everything a Catholic School stands for with regard to respect for all citizens and the promotion of the common good. Similarly, any inclusion within the school curriculum of information about how to access abortion services would fundamentally undermine the Catholic Ethos of our schools.  As the Catholic Bishops of Northern Ireland we are totally committed to ensuring that the Catholic Ethos is promoted and protected in all aspects of pastoral care, curriculum content and delivery.
  • Respondents to the consultation are not asked for their views on what a Care Plan for women should contain when requesting access to abortion services. Many women seek abortion services for a range of reasons.  Often they are distressed and in a state of panic. In such circumstances, the pressure and stress they experience can lead them to make a premature decision that many regret rather than taking the time to consider all their options. It is our view that urgent consideration be given to the inclusion of appropriate counselling services and a significant time period be provided for careful reflection on the serious nature of a decision to abort the unborn child.

 

  • There is no reference in the consultation document to services that would encourage women to proceed with their pregnancy to birth rather than seek an abortion. Factors such as poverty, relationship difficulties, housing, child care, safeguarding etc., are well known to influence women who are considering an abortion. It is our view, that existing services which address these and other factors should be made known to women who are considering abortion.
  • A significant number of women require a range of services after having had an abortion. This fact is not acknowledged in the consultation document. There are no questions which address the need to provide post-abortion services or the form that such provision might take. It is our view, that existing post-abortion services should be made known to all women seeking abortion services.
  • The risks associated with abortion are not acknowledged in the consultation document.  Respondents are not asked about how information concerning the inherent risks could be best communicated to women and girls seeking an abortion. It is our view that every woman who is considering abortion has a right to receive accurate and appropriate  information regarding the risks involved in abortion as well as the range of mental and physical conditions that can emerge as a result of having had an abortion.
  • Guidance on the collection of accurate data, including the reasons why women seek to have an abortion, should be provided within the New Regulatory Framework.  This data shall be essential if there is to be meaningful public scrutiny.

All of the above concerns relate directly to the health and safety of women and girls wishing to access abortion services.  Therefore, in the interests of the well-being of every woman or girl who might consider having an abortion, we would appeal to those responsible for the New Regulatory Framework to give serious consideration to the issues that underpin our concerns.

[1] Doogan [2014] UKSC 68