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Legal challenge for NHS-funded abortion care for women from Northern Ireland

Legal challenge for NHS-funded abortion care for women from Northern Ireland

• Supreme Court challenge to allow women from Northern Ireland to access NHS-funded abortion care in England begins today
• Women can currently pay up to £2000 for private procedures
• Court will hear that current restrictions contravene international human rights law and can force women to seek unsupervised home abortions, which carry a ‎harsh criminal penalty
• Coalition of reproductive rights charities intervening to support case being brought by NI mother and daughter

An appeal will commence today, Wednesday 2nd November, at the Supreme Court challenging the Secretary of State for Health’s decision to bar women who travel from Northern Ireland to England from NHS-funded abortion care. The case was originally brought in 2014 by a young woman, A, and her mother, B. At the time of her abortion, A was a 15 year old girl resident in Northern Ireland, who travelled to Manchester in 2012 with her mother to end her pregnancy, at a cost of £900. While their case was originally unsuccessful at the High Court and the Court of Appeal, A and B have been granted permission to appeal to the Supreme Court.

Abortion is illegal in Northern Ireland in all but the most exceptional of circumstances. Last year, only 16 abortions were carried out in Northern Ireland, a fall from 23 in 2014, and 833 women were recorded as having travelled to England and Wales for abortion care. Despite being UK residents, women from Northern Ireland must finance their abortion treatment, as well as travel and associated costs. Women from Northern Ireland are women resident in the UK, paying the same taxes as women in the rest of the UK, but they are unable to access the same healthcare services on the NHS as other women.

The Supreme Court will hear that imposing charges on women from NI causes significant distress, and can add significant expense.  In some cases, this can force women to delay accessing treatment as they try to raise the necessary funds. While abortion is a safe procedure, the earlier in pregnancy it is performed, the lower the potential risks. Department of Health statistics show that women from Northern Ireland present for terminations at a later gestation than women in England and Wales, with 73% of abortion for women from Northern Ireland taking place by week 9 of pregnancy, compared to 80% of abortions for women resident in England and Wales.

Women lacking financial resources are increasingly resorting to abortion medication purchased online illegally. Between 2010 and 2015, the numbers of women from Northern Ireland having abortions in England has fallen by a quarter (24.3%),and a recent study found that the number of women from Ireland and Northern Ireland seeking treatment annually from just one not-for-profit online provider, Women on Web, rose by 162% over the same period, from 548 women in 2010 to 1438 in 2015. While this is safe, UK law stipulates that women can be sent to prison for life for doing so. Earlier this year, a young student from Belfast who ended a pregnancy using online abortion pills after failing to gather the funds necessary for a termination in England was sentenced to a three-month suspended prison sentence. A second woman, a mother who purchased abortion medication online for her teenage daughter, is currently facing trial, and last week a new case emerged in which a woman was reported to the police and charged after seeking medical help.

A coalition of reproductive rights organisations are intervening in support of the appeal, arguing that the ban on NHS funded abortions represents unlawful discrimination contrary to Article 14 and Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights and that the fundamental issues of autonomy and dignity should reflect the Court’s approach to the relevant statute.

The coalition is comprised of Alliance for Choice, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (bpas), Birthrights, FPA, and the Abortion Support Network. They are represented at the Supreme Court by two barristers; Helen Mountfield QC, from Matrix chambers, and Jude Bunting, at Doughty Street Chambers; and the leading firm of solicitors, Leigh Day & Co.

Goretti Horgan, Alliance for Choice, said:

“Mothers of pregnant teenage daughters in Northern Ireland will be keenly aware that, as Mr Justice Horner noted in his judgement last November, the current situation on abortion in Northern Ireland “smacks of one law for the rich and another for the poor”. Those unable to get the money together to travel and pay for a private procedure must either see their daughter continue a pregnancy that will end her own childhood or risk prosecution for getting pills which are available on the NHS in England. This situation contravenes a range of human rights obligations and cannot be allowed to continue.”

Ann Furedi, bpas Chief Executive:

“It is simply unjust that women from Northern Ireland are forced to pay for healthcare that is provided free of charge to women resident in all other parts of the UK. For some women this financial barrier can be insurmountable, leaving them with no other option than to risk criminal punishment and use abortion medication bought online, illegally. Even those who do make the journey to England for abortion care will have often have to ensure delays as they try to raise the necessary funds. This is no way to treat women in the 21st Century.

Politicians in Northern Ireland should legislate to allow women to access the care they need at home. In the meantime, we believe that women from Northern Ireland who need an abortion should be entitled to NHS-funded care in England.”

Rebecca Schiller, CEO of Birthrights:

 "It is shocking that the human rights rights of Northern Irish women are still being contravened to such a degree in 2016. It is unacceptable that women must choose between keeping an unwanted pregnancy, risk prosecution by purchasing illegal abortion pills or spend significant sums to travel to England. We hope that the outcome of this appeal will be the beginning of Northern Irish women's human rights being upheld; both at home and in England."

Natika H Halil, FPA Chief Executive:

“Abortion law in Northern Ireland is over 150 years old and a failure to women’s reproductive health. It’s a disgrace that women are still forced to travel, and this injustice is only compounded by the high cost of private for procedures that women from Northern Ireland have to pay. Women who have used early medical abortion pills bought online have been criminally prosecuted, which is effectively a punishment for not having financial means or resources to travel to England.

Whatever the outcome of this case, we hope that Department of Health will rapidly change its position and support women from Northern Ireland by providing abortion services free on the NHS.”

Mara Clarke, Director of Abortion Support Network (ASN):

“A and B were lucky that when they fell short of raising the funds to travel and pay privately for an abortion, they found ASN and we provided funding. Everyone who needs an abortion is not so fortunate. It’s appalling that women in Northern Ireland who wish to end a pregnancy are held hostage to a draconian abortion law and faced with raising £400-£2000, involving a charity in England in their abortion decision, risking criminal prosecution by ordering safe but illegal pills online, taking more dangerous methods of self-termination or continuing an unwanted pregnancy.”


For more information please contact the bpas press office on 0207 061 3377, 07788 725185 or press@bpas.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.