By Hilary White

BELFAST February 11, 2010 ( – The move of the U.K. government to reissue health guidelines that were ordered withdrawn by a Northern Ireland High Court Justice is “baffling” and “bizarre,” said Liam Gibson, the head of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) in the province.

Gibson spoke with LSN today about the decision this week by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) to reissue the health guidelines that the Court had said “misrepresented” Northern Ireland’s laws on abortion.

Gibson said that the department “has simply disregarded the High Court order.” He also said SPUC is considering legal options in the face of this development. Despite the department’s act of open defiance of the High Court, however, a charge of contempt of court is not possible for legal reasons, according to Gibson.

One possibility under consideration is to launch another full judicial review, an option that could take months. For the moment, SPUC may seek a temporary injunction against the DHSSPS, but Gibson said this would merely be “temporary relief.”

“It is extraordinary,” he said, “totally baffling, that the government has taken this route. It’s bizarre.” SPUC is also looking to MLAs in the Northern Ireland Assembly to ask the Westminster government why the High Court ruling has been so brazenly ignored.

Titled, “Guidance on the Termination of Pregnancy: The Law and Clinical Practice in Northern Ireland,” the document, critics had argued, failed to take into account the fact that abortion is a crime in Northern Ireland, instead treating it as normal health care for women.

Lord Justice Girvan ruled in November that the guidelines, which tell health care workers how the law should be applied in practice, must be withdrawn. In December, the DHSSPS went to court again, asking to re-issue the guidelines with two sections – on “non-directive counseling” and the right of medical personnel to non-participation in abortion – removed. Justice Girvan had singled out those two sections for criticism.

The judge, however, refused permission, agreeing with SPUC that those two key issues cut across other sections of the guidance, such as informed consent and the provision of information to women.

Notwithstanding Girvan’s specific ruling against it, the DHSSPS has reissued the “interim guidance” with the two sections “temporarily removed.” The chief medical officer of the department said in a circular that the sections would be replaced “as soon as possible.”

Gibson said that it is more likely the work of civil servants than elected officials in the health ministry. “Somehow the department has now done exactly what it was told it could not do,” he said.

“Whether or not the decision to re-issue the guidance in this way is illegal, it is obvious that health officials have nothing but contempt for the ruling made against them.”