Ban on NHS-funded abortion care for women in Northern Ireland narrowly upheld due to government’s “respect” for decisions of the NI Assembly
A Supreme Court appeal challenging the government’s refusal to provide NHS-funded abortion care in England for women resident in Northern Ireland has narrowly failed. The court divided 3-2 against the appeal, expressing sympathy for the women of Northern Ireland but stating that they were restrained by the decision of the Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt, who argued the ban was out of “respect” for the democratic process in Northern Ireland.
The case was brought by a young woman, A, who in 2012 as a pregnant 15-year-old girl travelled with her mother, B, from their home in Northern Ireland to Manchester for an abortion at a cost of £900. Abortion is effectively banned in all but the most severe of circumstances in Northern Ireland. Despite being UK tax-payers, women from Northern Ireland in need of abortion care have had to fund both their travel to England and their treatment.
The Court’s ruling stated that - as Secretary of State - Mr Hunt holds the legal authority to grant women resident in Northern Ireland NHS-funded abortion care in England, but had decided against doing so - not due to financial constraints - but out of “respect” for the democratic decisions of the Northern Ireland Assembly, in which the largest party is the DUP.
The Secretary of State had previously stated that the Government’s policy was that “in general, the NHS should not fund services for residents of Northern Ireland which the Northern Ireland Assembly has deliberately decided not to legislate to provide.”
The judges expressed a profound sympathy for the “plight” of women in Northern Ireland facing an unplanned pregnancy. Lord Wilson, who did not rule in favour of the appeal, stated that the “embarrassment, difficulty, and uncertainty attendant on the urgent need to raise the necessary funds” added significantly to mother and daughter’s “emotional strain.”
It is expected that an appeal will now be taken to the European Court of Human Rights.
A coalition of reproductive healthcare providers intervened in the case: Alliance for Choice, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (bpas), Birthrights, the Family Planning Association (FPA), and the Abortion Support Network (ASN).
Commenting on the verdict:
Ann Furedi, bpas Chief Executive:
“We are of course disappointed with the overall verdict of the Supreme Court. However, this ruling confirms it is in Jeremy Hunt’s power to grant NHS-funded abortion care to women resident in Northern Ireland and his refusal to do so is political. It is not based on cost.
“NHS-funded abortion care may not have been declared a legal right for Northern Irish women today, but it is morally right to provide it. 724 women travelled from Northern Ireland to England for abortion care in 2016. They deserve the same care and compassion as all other UK citizens.”
Rebecca Schiller, CEO of Birthrights:
"This judgment makes it clear that Northern Irish women who need abortions can suffer serious emotional and financial hardship connected to the Secretary of State's decision not to provide free abortion care. As Lady Hale makes clear in her dissenting judgement, our legal system is based on a respect for human dignity and the rights of pregnant women to exercise autonomy in relation to their medical care are clear and have been hard won. We must urgently ensure that those in office, who hold the power to uphold or disregard these rights, are compelled to respect the values that our society and legal system holds dear."
Ruairi Rowan, Senior Advocacy Officer in Northern Ireland, FPA:
“FPA provides the only non-directive pregnancy choices counselling service in Northern Ireland. This provides women with counselling, support and information on all pregnancy options including accessing clinics in England and associated costs.
“Our counsellors will talk with clients about the travel experience and the clinical procedure and every day we see the distress that Northern Ireland’s restrictive abortion law causes to women and their families.
“This case would not have changed the law in Northern Ireland but the provision of free access to abortion services for all UK citizens would be a small change that would make a real difference to women who may otherwise struggle to afford the cost of private treatment.
“While FPA are disappointed with the overall decision we gain strength from the dissenting opinions of Lord Kerr and Lady Hale and will continue to advocate on behalf of our clients for a remedy to end this discriminatory two-tier system. Although the Supreme Court has not found that the Secretary of State has a legal duty to fund services for Northern Irish women in England, we believe that it is the right thing to do, given the potential to reduce suffering caused by restrictive abortion law. We urge him to take action.”
Mara Clarke, Director of the Abortion Support Network:
“A decision in our favour would have resulted in a significant reduction in costs for those who are forced to get on a plane or a ferry and pay privately for a medical procedure that is free to those resident in England, Scotland in Wales. We are disappointed that the Court has decided to maintain the status quo for those in Northern Ireland who travel to access a safe, legal abortion, upholding the two tiered system through which those with money can travel to England and those without can continue unwanted or non-viable pregnancies, risk prosecution by taking safe but illegal early medical abortion pills sourced online, or do more dangerous things in attempt to self harm. ASN will continue to help as many women as we can afford the £400-£2000 it can cost to travel and pay privately for an abortion in England.”
The full judgement and press summary can be found online here.
For more information please contact the bpas press office on 0207 061 3377, 07788 725185 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Notes to Editors:
The Statement of Case for the interveners can be found online here.
About the interveners:
Alliance for Choice
Alliance for Choice is an organisation of women and men, Protestant and Catholic, in Northern Ireland who want to see abortion free, safe and legal in the region. In the meantime, we seek to challenge the stigma surrounding abortion and to make heard the voices of the tens of thousands of women from Northern Ireland who have had abortions in England and elsewhere since 1967”.
The British Pregnancy Advisory Service, bpas, is a charity which sees more than 70,000 women a year and provides reproductive healthcare services including pregnancy counselling, abortion care, miscarriage management and contraception, at clinics across the UK. It supports and advocates for reproductive choice. More information can be found at www.bpas.org
Birthrights is the UK's only organisation dedicated to improving women's experience of pregnancy and childbirth by promoting respect for human rights. We believe that all women are entitled to respectful maternity care that protects their fundamental rights to dignity, autonomy, privacy and equality. We aspire to advance the human rights and lawful treatment of all child-bearing women. Birthrights is a registered charity funded entirely by donations and run by volunteers. More information can be found at birthrights.org.uk
The sexual health charity FPA gives straightforward information and support on sexual health, sex and relationships to everyone in the UK. FPA educates, informs and supports people through our specialist sexual health programmes, our websites and publications, our training for professionals and our public awareness campaigns. Our programme of work includes the provision the only impartial pregnancy choices and post-abortion counselling service in Northern Ireland, supporting around 300 women each year. More information can be found at www.fpa.org.uk
Abortion Support Network (www.asn.org.uk) is a charity that provides financial assistance, confidential, non-judgemental information and accommodation in volunteer homes to women forced to travel from Ireland, Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man and pay privately for abortions in England. The cost ranges between £400 and £2000 depending on circumstance and stage of pregnancy. While many organisations campaign for much needed law reform, ASN is the only group providing women travelling for abortions with the thing they need most immediately: money.