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Westminster Orders Northern Ireland's Leaders To Set Up Abortion Services Immediately

4 min read

The UK government has intervened on abortion access in Northern Ireland with the secretary of state Brandon Lewis issuing a directive ordering Stormont to roll out services.

The directive states that services should be implemented "no later than 31 March 2022". 

Lewis also said that early medical abortions – which can be administered up to 10 weeks gestation – are “at risk of collapse” and ordered immediate support for interim services. 

Changes to abortion laws in Northern Ireland were made in 2019 after Westminster acted to allow terminations in all circumstances in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and beyond that in other cases including cases of fatal foetal abnormality. This was passed when the power-sharing agreement was not in place.

It was then left up to Stormont's Department of Health to commission full services.

However with Stormont running again, the five-party executive has so far failed to agree services leading to difficulties for women, some of whom are still having to travel to Great Britain to access abortions.

In March this year Lewis took powers which would allow him to direct Stormont, though this is the first time they have been used. Last month Lewis told PoliticsHome he planned to use the power "sooner rather than later" if Stormont failed to commission adequate abortion services. 

Now he has acted on that pledge. “Today I am issuing a direction to the Department of Health, the Minister of Health, the Health and Social Care Board, and to the First and deputy First Minister, to commission and make abortion services available in Northern Ireland as soon as possible, and no later than 31 March 2022," Lewis said in a written ministerial statement this morning

“I am also directing that there should be immediate support for interim services of early medical abortion, which are at risk of collapse.

“I have a statutory duty to protect the rights of women and girls in Northern Ireland, imposed by section 9 of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019.

“I acknowledge and respect the deeply held views that individuals hold on this issue. However, it is the clear will of Parliament that the rights of women and girls in Northern Ireland are properly upheld.”

Lewis said that while he recognised the pandemic had placed a unique strain on heathcare services, he was nontheless disappointed that full commissioning proposals have not yet been brought forward by the Department of Health for the Nothern Ireland executive to discuss.

"This ongoing stalemate leaves me no choice but to issue a direction,” he added. 

He has said he will today instruct First Minister Paul Givan, from the DUP, and deputy First Minister, Michell O’Neill, from Sinn Fein, that once proposals are brought forward by the Department of Health, they must be included on the agenda at the next meeting of Stormont’s executive committee.

Sir Jeffery Donaldson, leader of the DUP, has previously said that any government intervention on abortion laws would damage the credibility of power-sharing.

Responding to news the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has directed the health department in Northern Ireland to commission abortion services, Grainne Teggart, Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland Campaign Manager, said: “Once again action from Westminster has been necessary to ensure abortion rights are realised here.

“Early medical abortion access remains on a cliff edge. It is therefore vital that the Department of Health ensures regional interim services are sustained whilst the commissioning process is underway.

“Abortion is healthcare, the sooner it is embedded in our healthcare system and any remaining stigma around it removed, the better."

Following Lewis' decision, DUP MP Carla Lockhart said abortion laws should be a matter for the Northern Ireland Assembly and executive, and has previously handed in a pro-life petition of more than 18,000 signatures.

Lockhart said: "The purpose of devolution is to legislate on issues that fall within its competence. Abortion is one such issue. Whilst it is a matter that divides opinion and on which strongly held views exist, it is important that local politicians are given the time and space to find consensus that reflects local public opinion on this issue.

The Government’s insistence on interfering on devolved issues undermines the institutions. Indeed, cynically some local parties know that by failing to engage constructively to find that local agreement, that the Government will deliver their objectives by March 2022 at the latest.

"What incentive have they now to give any regard to the pro-life views held by hundreds of thousands of people in Northern Ireland?"

She accused the Westminster government of double standards by insisting Northern Ireland's department of health should have prioritised the commissioning of abortion services during the pandemic, while in England, prioritising coronavirus cases has led to a huge NHS backlog.

She said: "Their double standards are plain for all to see. Indeed, the fact that the letter for the Northern Ireland Office fails to mention the life of the unborn baby reflects their partisan stance on this deeply emotive issue."

The DUP still want to find a locally agreed solution, she said.

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