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Government “considering further legislative action at Westminster” to secure abortion services in Northern Ireland

Following pressure from MPs during Parliamentary Questions today, Robin Walker MP, Minister for Northern Ireland, stated that the government are “considering further legislative action at Westminster” and “stand ready to act” if the Northern Ireland Executive does not take action to commission abortion services in line with Regulations passed in Westminster in March 2020.

Abortion was decriminalised in Northern Ireland in 2019, following a historic vote in Westminster, and MPs voted again in favour of regulations permitting abortion up to 12 weeks on request, and up to 24 weeks to protect the health of the pregnant woman, in March 2020.

However, the Department of Health in Northern Ireland has refused to commission services and Hospital Trusts have been left to try to resource abortion care at a local level during the pandemic. Due to financial pressures, a number of Trusts have been forced to suspend early medical abortion services. In January 2021, the South Eastern Trust announced that they were disbanding their early medical abortion services, leaving women with no local access to abortion care. Moreover, clinicians in Northern Ireland have reported that there is no provision for surgical termination, and no service for women over 10 weeks of pregnancy, despite the fact that abortion is legal up to 24 weeks of pregnancy in Northern Ireland.

During parliamentary questions today, the Minister confirmed that women have had to travel to England during the pandemic for abortion care, and Stella Creasy MP also stated that women were once again being forced to turn to online abortion providers for medication because of a lack of local services. While the Minister said that the government would prefer the Northern Ireland Executive to " progress the matter", he also stated that they were “considering further legislative action at Westminster at the appropriate time, should it be required.”

Clare Murphy, Chief Executive of the abortion care provider BPAS, said:

"When parliament voted overwhelmingly to decriminalise abortion in 2019, there was a clear expectation that abortion services would be established in Northern Ireland as a result. Under the current law, abortion can be provided up on request up to 12 weeks of pregnancy, and on the grounds of the health and wellbeing of the pregnant woman up to 24 weeks of pregnancy. Yet women continue to seek treatment in England, traveling across during a global pandemic, because they are struggling to access the care they need at home.

We are pleased that the government in Westminster is considering legislative action on this issue, but we are concerned that the Minister does not yet believe it is an "appropriate" time to act. Women and girls in Northern Ireland cannot wait any longer for politicians to consider the next steps - they need meaningful action today to secure accessible, sustainable abortion services in Northern Ireland."

Stella Creasy MP said:

"It's all very familiar - the Northern Ireland human rights commission and a vulnerable women are yet again having to drag the UK government to court over its failure to ensure women and girls in Northern Ireland can get access to abortion at home - except what is different now is that Parliament voted in July 2019 to place a formal legal requirement on the Secretary of State to ensure they could.

The Minister has said that he is "considering further potential legislative action at Westminster, at the appropriate time, should it be required." With over a hundred women denied an abortion in these past weeks and reports of Women Help Women, an online abortion medication provider, having to issue pills to women who cannot access abortion - the appropriate time is now."

Emma Campbell, Co-Convenor of Alliance for Choice, Belfast said:

"We are in the ludicrous position of now having the best abortion laws in the UK and Ireland, but the worst access. The refusal of the Department of Health to publish any information, even on the limited services that are available, has meant many women have ended up in the hands of anti-abortion groups, who mislead them until they are over the 10 weeks cut-off in services. Travelling to England for abortions was and remains a grave human rights breach that must be remedied urgently”

ENDS

For further information please contact BPAS on press@bpas.org or 07881 265276.

About BPAS

BPAS is a charity which sees almost 100,000 women a year for reproductive healthcare services including pregnancy counselling, abortion care, miscarriage management and contraception at clinics across the Great Britain. It supports and advocates for reproductive choice. BPAS also runs the Centre for Reproductive Research and Communication, which seeks to develop and deliver a research agenda that furthers women’s access to evidence-based reproductive healthcare, driven by an understanding of women’s perspectives and needs. You can find out more here: https://www.bpas.org/get-involved/centre-for-reproductive-research-communication/

BPAS will be launching a not-for-profit fertility service in 2021 to provide ethical, evidence based, person-centred care that supports patients. We intend to only charge what it costs to provide a safe, high-quality, and accessible service to patients who may be unable to access NHS funded care.