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Fatal Foetal Abnormality: Working Group Report

Oral Answers to Questions — Health – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 18th October 2016.

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Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance 2:00 pm, 18th October 2016

1. Mrs Long asked the Minister of Health when she will publish the report of the working group on fatal foetal abnormality. (AQO 489/16-21)

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green

11. Mr Agnew asked the Minister of Health, pursuant to AQO 269/16-21, to outline the report of the fatal foetal abnormality working group. (AQO 499/16-21)

Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance

13. Mr Lunn asked the Minister of Health whether she has reached agreement with the Minister of Justice on legislating for the conclusions reached by the working group on fatal foetal abnormality. (AQO 501/16-21)

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

With your permission, I would like to answer questions 1,11 and 13 together. I can confirm that the Justice Minister and I received the working group's report on 11 October and are actively considering its proposals. You will understand that the Justice Minister and I will want to take some time to consider and reflect on the recommendations. When both the Justice Minister and I are content, the report will be submitted to the Executive for their consideration and then their approval. It is not intended to publish the report or its recommendations until the Executive have concluded their deliberations. The report of the working group on fatal foetal abnormality was developed in line with the terms of reference for the group: to consider issues relating to cases of fatal foetal abnormality, including matters addressed in the previous consultation by the Department of Justice; and to provide a report to the Justice Minister and me with recommendations, including on potential legislative change for termination of pregnancy as necessary.

The focus of the working group's outreach work was to capture the broadest possible spectrum of views of women, the partners and families impacted by a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality and the health professionals providing their care, including representatives of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Royal College of General Practitioners, the Royal College of Nursing, the Royal College of Midwives and the Royal College of Psychiatrists. In considering the trauma that can be suffered by women and their families where a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality has been made, the group was guided by the wishes of women, their partners and their families regarding any engagement. Women willing to engage and share their experience, whatever that had been, were afforded the opportunity to communicate their experiences to the group, whether personally, in writing or through the Public Health Agency (PHA), which has undertaken work with women and families who have been directly impacted.

The Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Nursing Officer also met women and took account of the views of women who had engaged with the PHA through their work. Some women continued their pregnancy to term; some did not. I am grateful to the women, their partners and their families who took the time to relay their experiences either directly to the Chief Medical Officer —

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

— or through the Public Health Agency, as that cannot have been easy for them.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I thank the Health Minister for the attention that she, I know, has given to this difficult and sensitive issue. She said that she wanted time to consider the report and to take it to the Executive. Why cannot the report be published now so that the public are at least aware of the basis on which the Justice Minister and the Health Minister will approach their Executive colleagues and what the recommendations are?

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

I am happy to discuss the report's recommendations with the Member and other Members in due course. I received the report only last week — I think that it was last Tuesday evening — so the Justice Minster and I want to give it consideration. That is normal practice. We will then, on the basis of the recommendations, bring it to the Executive for discussion and, hopefully, chart a way forward for how we will support women who need our support. I look forward to being able to progress the report as quickly as possible. I was keen to make sure that we completed the work of the working group and were able to move forward to provide the assurance that people are asking us for.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

Thank you, Minister, for your reply. Many of the points were raised by the previous Member to speak, but I would like you to re-emphasise whether you will give a public commitment that the findings will be put to us as soon as possible through the Assembly and not leaked to the media or any other forum, which seems to be the purpose of this Government at present.

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

It is unfortunate that the Opposition are again trying to use a really sensitive, complicated and emotive issue for anyone who finds themselves in that scenario. I have the best will and intention towards the women who need our support, and, with that best will, I will bring a paper to the Executive, as I have just said. I will consider the recommendations of the professionals and of all those who found themselves in this scenario and gave information to the working group. It has been good work, and I look forward to bringing the proposal to the Executive and making sure that we have in place fit-for-purpose structures and supports that will allow women who find themselves and their families with a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality to receive first-class support.

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green

Does the Minister agree that this is very much a health issue and should be treated as such? Notwithstanding what she said about the recommendations of the report, will she seek to progress that this becomes a medical issue and not a criminal justice issue?

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

Yes, I think that it is so important that we look at how we as a health service provide, and, obviously, we are where people turn to for help and support. Where those women turn to for help and support, they need to have adequate and appropriate supports in place. I am glad to be part of this work. I am glad that the Justice Minister and I have been able to progress it as soon as we took office. Now that we have the report, we will work our way through the recommendations, and we will bring forward what we need to in terms of legislative change on the basis of the report. It has been a very collaborative piece of work, and I thank the Member for his continued interest. I look forward to updating the House on the way forward as soon as we can.

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

I entirely accept that the Minister — indeed, the two Ministers — cannot take action on the issue without Executive approval, but it is entirely within their gift to publish the report that has been presented to them. Given the sensitivity of the issue and the widespread public concern, will the Minister commit to discussing with the Justice Minister the immediate release of the report before any action can be agreed by the Executive?

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

As legislators, we have a duty to legislate, and we have to do that on the basis of the evidence that we have before us. The Justice Minister and I have had the report for only a week, and we said that we would look at it collectively. We have nothing to hide. The report has been done by professionals, and it is work that has also been informed by the previous piece of work — the consultation that you were involved with as Justice Minister. We have taken into account all of those factors, and we have taken into account as wide a range of views as possible. It is very important that, when we move forward and take decisions that are in the best interests of women, we do so on the basis of the evidence that we have before us. I am happy to say to the Member that I will not be found wanting in trying to bring the issue to the fore as quickly as we can. It has been in the ether for far too long, and we need to resolve it.