Abortion access: Denial of rights

The Northern Ireland Executive, the Department of Health, and the UK Government are being wilfully ignorant of the denial of women’s rights in Northern Ireland in relation to abortion access, writes David Whelan.

In July 2019, in the absence of a Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly, MPs in Westminster voted to decriminalise abortion in Northern Ireland and create new laws, essentially extending rights to Northern Ireland in line with the rest of the UK. The vote came at the same time as the move to extend same-sex marriage rights. While same-sex marriage has made it across the Irish Sea, abortion rights have not. 

The primary reason is a refusal by the Minister for Health Robin Swann MLA to commission and fund abortion services. Swann has used the “significance and sensitivity of the issue” as cover, pushing responsibility of a decision on to the Executive as a whole. However in mid-March, Sinn Féin signalled its intention to bring a proposal on commissioning services to the Executive.

Abortion regulations took effect in March 2020 and health trusts have provided an interim early medical abortion service, to allow the Department of Health to oversee the commissioning of abortion services in Northern Ireland. However, with the Department stating the need for Executive approval to commission and fund the service and the Executive declaring it a matter for the Department, little progress has been made. 

The unsustainable nature of the interim service provided by trusts has been highlighted following a number of closures and restarts due to limited resources, with Amnesty International describing a “postcode lottery” for healthcare by forcing women to travel in the midst of a pandemic. 

The British Government continues to provide funding for women in Northern Ireland to travel to England for abortion provision during the coronavirus pandemic but have failed in their duties to women despite delivering the legal framework for abortion services. 

The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 imposed a duty on the UK Government to reform Northern Ireland’s abortion law and required it to make regulations that provide lawful access to abortion services. That legal duty remained following the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive and while the framework is in place, the Act also stated a commitment by the Government to ensure “that the legal provisions for access to abortion services can also be accompanied by models of care, training, professional guidance and professional standards of practice to assist medical professionals.”

The dereliction of duty is such that Northern Ireland’s Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) has launched legal action against the UK Government, the Executive and the Department of Health, accusing them of unlawfully denying the rights of women in the country. 

The 1967 Abortion Act made termination legal in Great Britain up to 24 weeks in most circumstances, but it was not extended to Northern Ireland, meaning that until recently abortions in Northern Ireland were only allowed if a woman’s life was at risk or if there was a risk of permanent and serious damage to a woman’s mental and physical health.  

The result was that in many cases women were forced to leave Northern Ireland to access abortion services. Despite the change in law, the delay in providing services by the Department means that little has changed and travel restrictions caused by the pandemic have served as a further barrier to women’s rights to access abortion services. 

In June 2020, a majority of MLAs in the Northern Ireland Assembly backed a non-binding motion which rejected the imposition of the laws by Westminster. The Secretary of State Brandon Lewis indicated that the British Government would not amend the regulations in response, pointing to the necessity of regulations to comply with a UN convention. However, he did highlight the potential for legislation to be changed if Executive agreement can be reached, a feat which is highly unlikely. 

In the meantime, women across Northern Ireland remain without access to legally entitled services.

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