Changes to abortion law go further than expected

FIVE issues within the Abortion Law.

Deputies Meerveld and McKenna proposed delaying the modernisation of the Abortion Law because of five significant issues which became apparent after the recent publication of the draft law, which was the first opportunity to evaluate the impact of the specific legal changes.

Legalising self-abortions by women during the entire term of pregnancy

Other jurisdictions have decriminalised self-abortion but have limited it to the elective (unrestricted) abortion period. For instance, New South Wales decriminalised in October 2019 but limited it to their 22-week elective abortion limit. However, Guernsey is legalising self-abortion for the entire term of pregnancy (up to minutes before birth at nine months) with absolutely no restrictions or controls.

Extending the unrestricted abortion period from 12 to 24 weeks

Under the UK’s 1967 abortion law, the elective abortion limit was 28 weeks’ gestation. However, the gestation limit was lowered 23 years later in 1990 from 28 weeks to 24 weeks, based on the then ‘accepted point at which the fetus is considered viable outside the mother’s body’ – a decision based on medical evidence which is now 30 years out of date. The UK’s 24-week limit is the longest in Europe and almost exceptional internationally, where the typical limit is 12 weeks. Guernsey is increasing our limit from 12 weeks to match the UK at 24 weeks without considering if that limit is appropriate based on the advances in paediatric medical care during the 30 years since the UK adopted their 24-week limit in 1990.

Discrimination against unborn children based on disability

Just 21 days after approving the modernisation of the abortion law, the previous States Assembly approved a new discrimination ordinance, which will outlaw discrimination on the grounds of disability. And yet, the abortion law allows explicitly abortion, up to birth, of a foetus if there is a substantial risk of significant physical or mental impairment. A recent High Court challenge to the UK law described this as ‘a specific instance of inequality of the law’ and ‘downright discrimination’. The High Court’s judgment on whether this is discriminatory and breaches the European convention on human rights is expected in September.

Restricting medical staff who are conscientious objectors

The law restricts and regulates the right to conscientious objections concerning participating in treatment resulting in abortions. It also authorises the Committee for Health & Social Care to make regulations to further restrict or impose conditions on the right to conscientious objection. Guernsey’s legislation against conscientious objectors goes well beyond the UK abortion legislation and potentially contravenes Human Rights.

Removing the requirement for a second medical opinion

Removing the need for a second medical opinion takes away a significant safeguard for both the mother and the unborn child. A second opinion from another medical practitioner may identify a misdiagnosis of a foetal abnormality and avoid an unnecessary abortion. The Guernsey legislation goes well beyond the UK, where two medical opinions are required.

Conclusion

The deputies who voted to pause the modernisation for less than a year for further consideration did so because they were concerned about one or more of these issues. When enacted, Guernsey will have an abortion law that goes much further than expected and well beyond the UK law. It is a law that may need revisiting and revising shortly after being enacted.

Signed by deputies:

CARL MEERVELD, LIAM MCKENNA, JOHN DYKE, CHRIS BLIN, SUE ALDWELL, BOB MURRAY, JOHN GOLLOP, AND LESTER QUERIPEL

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