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Seismic US Abortion Ban Renews Calls To Get Northern Ireland Services Up And Running

The seismic Supreme Court ruling has sparked pro-abortion protests in the UK (Alamy)

6 min read

The decision by the US Supreme Court to reverse that country’s legal right to abortion has renewed focus on the lack of abortion provision in Northern Ireland where women still cannot access services locally, despite a law passed more than two years ago.

On Friday, the 50-year-old US law granting a constitutional right to abortion – Roe Vs Wade – was overturned by the country's supreme court. It is now up to individual states to pass their own abortion laws, with a number of them instigating an immediate and total ban. More are expected to follow. 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson described the move as a "huge step backwards", but it has also drawn new attention to ongoing issues with abortion services in the UK. 

In 2019, a near-total ban on abortion in Northern Ireland was overturned by Westminster, meaning it is now legal to terminate a pregnancy up to 24 weeks. But the Department of Health in the region has still not commissioned abortion services, meaning hundreds are still travelling from Northern Ireland to England and Wales for an abortion. 

“This rights rollback [in the US] is a painful reminder of the fragility of progress and why the fight to protect access to abortion healthcare never stops,” Amnesty’s Northern Ireland Deputy Director Grainne Teggart said. 

“We are at a vital point in the realisation of abortion rights in Northern Ireland - the sooner services are established and accessible to all who need them.”

Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis has promised to overrule the Department of Health and commission services from Westminster, a change a government source told PoliticsHome is "imminent". 

They accused the Northern Ireland health department for “dragging their feet and refusing to commission the services that have been law since early 2020”.

Lewis is “setting up an expert commissioning team” within the Northern Ireland Office to monitor progress.

While the 1967 Abortion Act legalised treatment in most circumstances in Great Britain, it was never extended to Northern Ireland, where abortion would only be permitted if a woman's life was at risk or there was a risk.

But in 2019, amid deadlock in the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Labour MP Stella Creasy attached an amendment to a bill which required the government to liberalise abortion in Northern Ireland if devolution was not restored, which was backed by MPs in Westminster by 332 votes to 99.

The power-sharing executive got back up and running, but not before the government had published a new legal framework for accessing terminations, which took effect from 31 March 2020.

But the regulations stated that it was up to Stormont's Department of Health to commission full services, which has not happened. The minister in charge, Robin Swann, does not believe the new law compels the executive or the health and social care board to provide abortion services locally.

According to polling, most people in Northern Ireland support decriminalisation of abortion, but the main political parties have been slow to support the roll-out of services for fear of alienating socially conservative supporters in the heavily Christian part of the UK. The DUP has repeatedly stated its opposition to decriminalisation of abortion and stated their intention to seek to reverse it. 

At May’s assembly elections none of the five coalition parties explicitly wrote “abortion” in their manifesto, and the Greens, who did and made it a point of pride, lost both of their assembly seats.

At present health trusts can only permit terminations in the first 10 weeks of pregnancy, and those services are patchy, with no surgical abortions for those with longer gestation periods having begun.

Alyson Kilpatrick, chief commissioner of Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, said in practice, women still face having to continue a pregnancy against their wishes or take unregulated abortion pills.

“In Northern Ireland women and girls are still faced with deplorable options,” she said last month.

The other option is to travel to other parts of the UK. In the last year 161 women travelled from Northern Ireland to England and Wales for abortions, according to the Department of Health figures released this week. The figure was down from 371 women in 2020, and more than 1,000 in 2019, but that is largely explained by Covid-19 travel restrictions.

Campaign group Amnesty International said the figures were a “reminder of the urgent need for commissioned services” in Northern Ireland. 

In early 2021, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission announced that it was taking legal action against the UK government for failing to ensure women are provided with abortion and post abortion care in public health facilities in Northern Ireland.

In October last year they won a judicial review, which said Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis had failed to comply with his duties.

Meanwhile, the government laid the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2021, giving Lewis the power to “direct Northern Ireland Ministers and departments or relevant agencies” to implement abortion regulations, with a deadline of 31 March this year.

Ahead of the deadline he stated it was “increasingly clear” the Northern Ireland Department of Health was not going to comply, and begun drafting further regulations to come in after May’s assembly elections.

There is as yet no date for when Lewis will begin to use those powers to compel the commissioning of full abortion services, but this week both Houses approved the new regulations after MPs and peers voted in favour.

The issue has now been placed back into sharp focus after the monumental legal decision taken in America to overturn Roe vs Wade, which for 50 years has enshrined termination rights.

At a stroke, millions of women no longer have access to those services after a number of states, who had prepared for this ruling with trigger ballots, passed laws immediately to shut down clinics on Friday.

Boris Johnson, who had previously not spoken out on the issue, condemned the decision by the US court as a "big step backwards” and defended a woman’s right to choose.

The Prime Minister also talked about the changes to the law in Northern Ireland, telling a press conference in Rwanda: "We recently took steps to ensure that those laws were enforced throughout the whole of the UK.”

But campaigners pointed out access has still not been provided. Ashleigh Topley, a pro-choice activist based in County Armagh, tweeting: “Can’t help but feel frustrated this evening as UK twitter is full of (rightful) outrage about Roe vs Wade.

“Just a reminder – here in Northern Ireland abortion is decriminalised but as services have still have not been commissioned, there are countless barriers to actually accessing an abortion.”

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