It has been more than a decade since The Family Planning Association (FPA) successfully challenged the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety in the High Court over its refusal to issue guidance to health professionals. Since then, documents have been published and then withdrawn, which has meant countless women and families have been affected by delays. They have been subjected to a system in which health professionals have been working in fear and confusion and women have been refused support and left in a state of crisis.
Finally we have a document which can provide doctors, nurses and other staff with clarity around abortion law and which, crucially, focuses on women and the support they need before, during and after seeking a termination.
It is encouraging that the importance of access to counselling has been reinforced, both while making decisions about a pregnancy and after an abortion, regardless of where the abortion has taken place.
FPA has provided a pregnancy choices and post-abortion counselling service for more than 20 years, based on the fundamental importance of giving women the time and space to talk about how they feel and go through their options in a nondirective, unbiased way.
This guidance was never going to be a document that could change the law in Northern Ireland to allow abortions, for example, where there has been a fatal fetal abnormality diagnosis, rape or incest. We will continue to campaign for this, and we know it is supported by public opinion.
Although it is important the guidance does reiterate that women's best interests should be considered if they have had an abortion outside of Northern Ireland or are seeking medical help after buying abortion pills online, frankly they should never have been put in that position in the first place.
However, now we have this document to clarify the current law, the Department of Health must ensure the training needs identified in the guidance are implemented in each and every region, and clear and consistent working practices are put in place.
By Mark Breslin, Director of FPA Northern Ireland