Doctors will be asked to use expert discretion to determine when an unborn child can survive outside the womb after abortion is decriminalised in Northern Ireland.
Medics have been urged to act in line with guidelines from their professional bodies when making an assessment in the limited number of cases expected to arise in the region in the period between decriminalisation and the introduction of more widespread services.
As a consequence of a law passed by MPs at Westminster in the summer, abortion will be decriminalised in the North later this month, if the Stormont executive is not up and running by October 21.
The UK Government will then take on the responsibility for introducing new regulations to provide greater access to abortions in the region by next April.
Officials are now drawing up proposals on what the new abortion regime will look like – a system that must comply with recommendations of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).
The Northern Ireland Office (NIO) issued guidelines to medical professionals late on Monday night on the legal position in the interim six-month period.
Abortion services will not routinely be offered in this period, with women instead able to access free travel to receive treatment in England.
A limited number of abortions will be offered in the North, including those women who have received a diagnosis of a fatal or serious foetal abnormality.
While 19th century laws outlawing almost all abortions in Northern Ireland will fall away on October 22, the Criminal Justice Act 1945 will still apply in the region.
Section 25(1) of the Act makes it a criminal offence for anyone to assist or wilfully act to “destroy the life of a child then capable of being born alive”.
The Act identifies 28 weeks as the point in pregnancy when life becomes viable outside the womb, but that actual time frame had shortened significantly due to medical advances in the decades since the law was made.
Discretion will therefore be given to medics to decide viability on a case by case basis in the next six months, with 22/24 weeks the actual time frame that will be used.
If Stormont ministers return to government between the end of October and April they could potentially influence the shape of the regime being developed by the UK Government.
However, it is understood NIO officials believe the scope for making significant change would be limited.
That is because the system must comply with the CEDAW and due to the fact that last week the High Court in Belfast ruled that the current regime was in breach of UK human rights obligations.
Officials drawing up the proposals are understood to have reviewed the experiences of other places that have recently undergone major reform of their abortion laws, including Ireland, New Zealand and the Isle of Man.
Grainne Teggart, Amnesty UK’s Northern Ireland campaign manager, welcomed the guidance for medics.
“It paves the way for a smooth transition for free, safe and legal services here,” she said.
“The guidelines set out clearly that from October 21st, women can safely go to their doctors for medical assistance, including in cases where they’ve self-managed an abortion with pills, without fear of prosecution.
“From that date onwards, anyone given a serious or fatal diagnosis will be able to access the healthcare locally, whilst everyone else will have their travel expenses covered until full service provision is introduced next year.
“We’re just two weeks away from seeing these much-needed and anticipated reforms take effect – in a matter of days, no-one will be treated as a criminal for accessing or providing this healthcare service, and all current prosecutions will be dropped.
“We’re finally saying goodbye to a law that has caused a huge amount of suffering – the relief, for so many, is overwhelming.”
Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister voiced concern, claiming the guidelines set a “dangerous and unacceptable course”.
“The guidance issued on abortion from 21 October is troubling in two regards,” he said.
“First, it anticipates abortions well outside the much campaigned for demand of ‘fatal foetal abnormality’ by expanding that to include ‘serious foetal anomaly’.
“So the handicapped can now be readily aborted.
“In truth, even if it is stretched, as in GB, to cleft palates, it is open season because the revocation of Sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act (1869) means there is no longer any criminal sanction available.”
Mr Allister also criticised the approach to those holding a conscientious objection to performing abortions.
“Such is restricted to immediate ‘hands on’ involvement in providing the abortion, meaning conscientious objectors have no rights when it comes to the tasks essential to setting up and overseeing abortions,” he said.
“I do not believe this adequately meets the expectations of Article 9 and 10 of the ECHR (European Convention on Human Rights).”