Changes to the abortion law in Northern Ireland - information for doctors

On the 31 March 2020, the Department of Health and Social Care published a new legal framework for statutory abortion in Northern Ireland.

Doctors should familiarise themselves with the new framework. They should also keep up-to-date with relevant clinical and legal guidance that may affect the care they can provide.

What is our position and guidance on termination of pregnancies?

We do not take a position on, or provide guidance about clinical matters or interpretations of the law, including on pregnancy and abortion care. This is for organisations such as government health departments and medical royal colleges to provide.

Doctors have a responsibility to provide patients with safe and effective care, in line with the standards set out in our guidance, including Good medical practice, Personal beliefs and medical practice, Decision making and consent and Confidentiality: good practice in handling patient information.

What is our position on conscientious objection?

Our Personal beliefs and medical practice guidance is clear that a doctor may opt out of providing a particular treatment. But, patients should not be not discriminated against and must have access to necessary information and timely care. Doctors must also not express personal beliefs to patients in ways that exploit their vulnerability or are likely to cause them distress.

Personal beliefs and medical practice says:

4. Doctors may practise medicine in accordance with their beliefs, provided that they act in accordance with relevant legislation and:

  • do not treat patients unfairly
  • do not deny patients access to appropriate medical treatment or services
  • do not cause patients distress.

If any of these circumstances are likely to arise, we expect doctors to provide effective patient care, advice or support in line with Good medical practice, whatever their personal beliefs.

Our guidance also makes clear that doctors should be open with employers, partners or colleagues about their conscientious objection. They should explore with them how to practise in line with their beliefs without compromising patient care or overburdening colleagues.