|Royal Courts of Justice, Belfast|
In Court this morning Mr Tony McGleenan, the FPA’s legal council, tried to minimise the seriousness of the problems highlighted by the SPUC action. There were two main areas of concern, i) counselling for women considering abortion, and ii) the rights of medical personnel not to take part in abortion procedures. But the judge in SPUC’s case took the view that these were cross-cutting issues which held implications for the guidance as a whole and, therefore, ordered the entire document to be withdrawn.
Since then there has been a change in the post of Minister for Health. Edwin Poots, the new Minister, has taken a more considered approach to how the guidance should reflect the laws which prohibit abortion in Northern Ireland. In a written response to a parliamentary question on the matter from to Anna Lo, a pro-abortion MLA from the Alliance Party, he stated:
"This is a complex issue and one that requires careful consideration. I must ensure that any guidance produced for health professionals is robust and compatible with criminal law. I will only produce guidance when I am satisfied that this has been achieved." (AQW 13733/11-15, Hansard Written Answers, WA 30 14:09:2012)
Also in contrast to his predecessor, Mr Poots has listened to the concerns of pro-life doctors and parliamentarians who had for years been calling for more accurate and detailed records to be collected regarding the circumstances surrounding the abortions carried out in the Province. Supposedly these are lawful abortions but while no detailed records are kept it is simply impossible to say for certain. Strangely, (but predictably) the FPA who are now stamping their feet and demanding the publication of guidance is simultaneously opposed to the collection of data on abortions here. How can any group demand the immediate publication of guidance yet oppose mechanisms needed to ensure compliance with that guidance? The answer of course is that the FPA don’t want guidance that reflects the criminal law but something which medicalises it. Abortion, however, is not healthcare. It remains a criminal offence.
The FPA application is scheduled to be heard over Monday 21st and Tuesday 22nd January, 2013. The pro-life movement has a dog in this fight but so far hasn’t seen a need to intervene in a case that shouldn’t have any bearing on the contents of the guidance. Nevertheless, we will be keeping a careful eye on developments.