The report of an inter-Departmental working group on termination of pregnancies in fatal fetal abnormality cases has today been published.
The report was commissioned in 2016 by the then Health and Justice Ministers, with a view to informing Executive policy deliberations.
Publication was to have been a matter for Ministers. Given the continuing absence of devolved institutions, the Departments of Health and Justice have now decided to release the report on public interest grounds and in line with Freedom of Information responsibilities.
The working group report recommends "that a change is made to abortion law to provide for termination of pregnancy where the abnormality is of such a nature as to be likely to cause death either before birth, during birth or in the early period after birth".
It also states: "Where a diagnosis has been made of such an abnormality, it is to be accepted that the continuance of such a pregnancy poses a substantial risk of serious adverse effect on a women's health and wellbeing."
On the issue of terminology and definitions, the working group report states that fatal fetal abnormality "is an acceptable description of a diagnosis made, usually around 20 weeks gestation, of a fetal abnormality which will result in death in utero, at birth or shortly after birth".
It also notes that modern diagnostic resources "allow for very accurate information to be provided to women regarding the condition of the fetus and its viability".
Members of the working group held meetings with medical professional bodies and with women, and their families, who had experience of fatal fetal abnormalities.
Key findings and conclusions of the report include:
- some improvements can be made to the care and support of women with a fatal fetal abnormality diagnosis through proposals to improve the standard of care under the existing legal framework
- Health professionals said that, in their professional opinion, retaining the existing legal constraints would continue to place an unacceptable burden on women's health and wellbeing
- One of the most compelling cases for change was the overall recognition by those health professionals who spoke to the group that the existing legal framework prevents them from fully meeting their duty of care to all women in this situation and therefore denies those women who wish to terminate the pregnancy, access to proper standards of health care
- In summary, health professionals considered the current situation to be professionally untenable
Notes to editors:
1. The membership of the working group was:
- Chief Medical Officer, Michael McBride (Chair)
- Chief Nursing Officer, Charlotte McArdle
- Chief Social Services Officer, Seán Holland
- DOH Secondary Care Directorate, Jackie Johnston
- Departmental Solicitor's Office, Hugh Widdis
- Department of Justice, Brian Grzymek and Amanda Patterson
2. Under its terms of reference, the group was required to "consider issues relating to cases of fatal fetal abnormality, including matters addressed in the previous consultation by the Department of Justice, and provide a report to the DOH and DOJ Ministers, making recommendations, including on potential legislative change for termination of pregnancy as necessary."
3. FOI and publication
Both Departments had maintained that the public interest lay in delaying publication until government and political structures were reinstated. Section 35 of the Freedom of Information Act provides for an exemption to disclosure if it is in the public interest to do so. In this case, the argument against publication lay in the fact that this report had been commissioned by Ministers for consideration by the Executive prior to finalisation of a policy position before subsequent publication. The policy position had not been decided before the Executive ceased to function in January 2017.
However, the Departments acknowledge that there is currently no indication of a specific timeframe for the resumption of an Executive and Assembly, and, for that reason, the need to preserve time and space for Executive Ministers to consider the findings of the working group no longer carries sufficient weight to balance the public interest in favour of continuing to delay release of the information contained within the report.
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