The UK Will Give Northern Ireland’s Women Access to Abortion

Northern Ireland currently bans abortion in nearly all circumstances, but the UK government has announced a U-turn that will, at the very least, give women from Northern Ireland access to free abortion care.

At present, a woman from Northern Ireland can expect to pay around £900 – $1,167 — if she travels to another location in the UK in order to terminate a pregnancy. Campaigners have long argued that this is unfair, but the UK’s Supreme Court ruled recently that it is not unlawful. They argue that, for this aspect of care, Northern Ireland can set its own laws, and as such women from Northern Ireland accessing mainland abortion care are doing so as outside agents.

This ruling was decried as basically reinforcing Northern Ireland’s ban on abortion. After all, only people who are affluent would likely be able to afford to access this expensive termination care. 

The Conservative-led British government had backed the fee, however, saying it is necessary for the NHS and also for ensuring that the separation of powers between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain remains properly distinct.

That said, Labour MP for Walthamstow Stella Creasy recently tabled an amendment to what is known as the Queen’s Speech –essentially, the raft of legislation that the House of Commons hopes to debate and enact during its term — that would enable people from Northern Ireland to access all NHS medical care for free, including abortion. In a surprise move, a number of Conservative MPs informed the party that they wanted to support such access. 

Prime Minister Theresa May’s government is currently trying to cement a deal with Northern Ireland’s DUP in order to give the Conservatives the majority they need to pass and defend party-line legislation. But even with that support, the majority is so slim as to be precarious. The prospect of some 40 Conservative MPs voting for the Labour amendment, including influential ministers such as Nicky Morgan and Maria Miller, meant a government defeat was possible — and something that the Conservatives cannot afford at this time.

As such, on Thursday, June 29, Minister For Women and Equalities Justine Greening informed MPs that the Government had rethought its position. According to Sky News, the letter states:

At present women from Northern Ireland are asked for payment, and from now on it is our proposal that this will no longer happen. This is clearly a sensitive issue and one which has direct implications for equality in treatment of women from Northern Ireland. allowing discussions with the Department of Health, we will ensure these payments will be funded through the Government Equalities Office with additional funding. This will mean no English health service user is disadvantaged as a result of this change.

It should be noted that Justine Greening has appeared sympathetic on this issue, and her stance is likely a reflection of a deeper sentiment among Conservatives that blocking women from accessing abortion care was a misstep. As such, this is unlikely to be solely about heading off a defeat, although undeniably that may have been the major factor.

Originally, there were fears that a Conservative deal with the DUP would mean that no change to policy would be possible. Obviously that is not the case in this instance, and it suggests that while the Conservatives need the DUP, they are keen to keep distance between the parties. And that’s good news for progressives who had feared that the DUP would embolden the conservative right on issues like opposition to LGBT rights and climate change denial.

The DUP has also been the central reason why abortion law has not undergone reform in Northern Ireland. It has also pressed for criminal investigations into suspected abortion cases. Because doctors have feared legal sanctions, women have risked death rather than access abortion care.

As a result, the change in British policy has been treated as a substantial win for Northern Ireland’s women who currently endure what is essentially an all-out ban on abortion.

Mara Clarke, director of the Abortion Support Network, told the Guardian:

This is an incredible step forward. Anyone travelling for an abortion will save a minimum of £330, thanks to today’s announcement. However, they will still have to pay for flights and accommodation, childcare and time off work. And there will always be women who cannot travel. Women who don’t have someone who can watch existing children, or women made pregnant by controlling or violent partners. And no one should have to travel. We rejoice today – but the work will still be here tomorrow.

To that end, the news isn’t all good. Northern Ireland’s High Court ruled in 2015 that Northern Ireland’s failure to provide abortions in cases of fatal fetal abnormality or as post-rape care breached the European Convention on Human Rights.

Northern Ireland’s attorney general challenged that ruling, and, in the past week, a three-panel Appeals Court ruled that abortion law is a matter for legislators to decide and that it cannot be changed by the courts. While there is an indication that this matter will now go to the Supreme Court, it is undeniable that this is a significant setback for women in Northern Ireland who continue to be criminalized if they are even suspected of having terminated their pregnancy.

Clearly, there is still significant need for reform, but the UK government’s decision to provide abortion access for Northern Ireland’s women is at least one positive step.

Photo Credit: William Murphy/Flickr

54 comments

Carl R
Carl R6 months ago

Thanks!!!

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pam w
pam w6 months ago

Margie Fourie....I hope you read what I've just written here. Calling a rapist a ''parent'' is just a joke.

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pam w
pam w6 months ago

Ch B's point is good but doesn't cover all cases of unwanted pregnancy. Working at Planned Parenthood gives me time to learn from patients and I know this...unwanted pregnancy is ALWAYS the result of a failure....1. Contraceptives can (and DO) fail us. 2. Men can fail us...we're seduced, forced and coerced. 3. We can fail ourselves...getting carried away, forgetting, etc. So--all the preplanning in the world will never eliminate the problem. ONLY access to safe, affordable terminations will make sure women are free of unwanted pregnancy.

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natasha s
Past Member 6 months ago

Get together N. Ireland. Shameful that women need to travel at all to get an abortion. It's every women's right. Besides i don't see any country treating orphans--all those unwanted babies very well. The system they enter is brutal. Another reason to support women+allow each one their rights.

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Carl R
Carl R6 months ago

Thanks!!!

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heather g
heather g6 months ago

I hope these laws are finally passed - they shouldn't have to travel to the UK to have that procedure. It's the first step ....

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Jean Dahlquist
Jean Dahlquist6 months ago

Good to know!

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Leo Custer
Leo C6 months ago

Thank you for Sharing

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Ch B
Ch B6 months ago

If you want to stop abortion, the effective way to approach it is to prevent unwanted pregnancies and support women and families after children are born. Ensure women have access to free birth control. Mandate that insurance companies pay for birth control solutions, even if the companies do not believe in birth control. Ensure that women and poor families in general have access to free or substantially reduced childcare - so that parents can afford to work and contribute to society. Have programs that provide education for mothers as well as child care so they can learn skills to prepare them for good jobs. Having a child should not be set up to ruin a woman's life by taking away any chances she has for any role except "poor mother with no possibility for work.

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Janet B
Janet B6 months ago

Thanks

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