UK Government taken to court over abortion services in Northern Ireland

abortion services in northern ireland, ireland
© Chanintorn Vanichsawangphan

A Northern Irish human rights group are taking the UK Government to court, for failing to enforce abortion services in Northern Ireland after the pandemic – one year after abortion was legalised

Since 31 March, 2020, the general criminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland was dropped. From this moment, women could theoretically access abortion services in Northern Ireland (NI). There are multiple conditions on this access, such as two registered medical professionals agreeing that there would be no mental or physical health consequences.

But still, this was a victorious moment for women’s rights campaigners, who had been seeking decriminalisation of abortion in the region.

The delay in implementing abortion services

Though this law has technically changed, there are now significant concerns about lack of services. A law needs to be implemented to really exist.

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) have moved to file legal action against the UK Government, as infrastructural and ideological obstacles have made abortion inaccessible.

“We have entered a Kafkaesque world where the NIO [Northern Ireland Office] claims it is taking all reasonable steps to enable a service, the Department of Health claims it cannot get agreement to commission and fund a service through the NI Executive, and the NI Executive says it is a matter for the Department of Health,” he said.

“It is a game of ‘pass the parcel’ where the music never stops, except it is not a game but an issue of women’s health and wellbeing. In addition, forcing women to travel raises wider public health issues.”

There is now a different level of healthcare available across Northern Ireland, meaning that women may turn to unregulated and dangerous services if they are particularly at-risk from the COVID-19 virus.

No new services mean underfunded ones are collapsing

The Department of Health have not commissioned termination services across Northern Ireland, or issued any guidance to health and social care trusts – including in what kind of scenario medical staff can exercise their freedom of conscience when delivering a service.

It seems that political leaders in NI did not respond to Department of Health requests to commission an abortion service. This request was sent to Northern Ireland in April and May of 2020, which means that there has been structural inactivity for nearly one year.

The NIHRC further commented: “The Commission is deeply concerned at the lack of commissioned and funded abortion services in Northern Ireland leading to a vacuum for many women and girls seeking such services.”


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