Comment

Abortion is now legal in Northern Ireland - but why aren't procedures actually being carried out?

Last year, over 1,000 women travelled to England from NI to access abortion services. Why are people still forced to take a flight in order

As of a week ago, abortion is legal in Northern Ireland. Sort of. Abortion regulations came in to law on March 31 - making them technically legal, though still impossible to obtain as the government wrangled over how to actually roll them out. But last Wednesday, this was ratified in the House of Commons and the House of Lords; two votes confirming that the service must be made available to women in Northern Ireland from here on out.

Over 60,000 women have travelled to England since 1970 in order to terminate a pregnancy - including in the months since the regulations passed the first hurdle in March; overwhelming evidence that abortion is needed in Northern Ireland. Julian Smith understood this when he was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, drafting the consultation on the regulations, but our devolved government has meant this issue is regularly stymied by politicians who cannot reach a consensus. Arlene Foster, the first minister, has previously blocked attempts at legalisation. “I don’t think it’s any secret that I don’t believe that abortion on demand should be available in Northern Ireland,” she said in April. “I think it’s a very retrograde step for our society.”

The House of Lords has stood firm in support of the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and their inquiry findings on abortion in Northern Ireland in 2018, which found that the UK was guilty of grave and systemic human rights abuses by forcing people to have to travel from NI to England for abortions. It also stated unequivocally that devolution agreements do not preclude regions from obligations to human rights treaties, which subsequently means Westminster will always be ultimately responsible for human rights in NI. Similar findings were reflected again in the Women and Equalities Committee Inquiry on Abortion in 2019 which acknowledged the rise of the illegal use of telemedicine abortion pills from online sources; Westminster has since then been tasked with acting where the Assembly had failed.

Just two weeks ago, the Stormont Assembly held a vote to try and demonstrate to Westminster that NI opposed the new legislation. The vote did show a majority opposition, but this was hinged on one point; abortion legislation being extended to all non-fatal disabilities, such as Down's syndrome.

Westminster has rightly stepped in after years of Stormont prevarication. Now all the Department of Health in NI has to do is properly commission services and provide information for doctors and abortion seekers. Yet, when pressed, they have said that they will not do so until there is full agreement from the Stormont Executive - a move that is legally unnecessary and what appears to be a ploy to allow the DUP and others to block and delay these long-awaited provisions coming into effect.

The DUP voted in April against a proposal to allow doctors to prescribe the abortion pill via telephone consultations - a measure that has been introduced across the rest of the United Kingdom in the wake of coronavirus lockdown. The Ulster Unionist Party abstained, a source close to the Northern Ireland executive said.

Westminster has made clear that any changes they make to the regulations must remain CEDAW compliant. CEDAW recommends a diagnosis of severe foetal abnormality should be treated without having to travel to England. That means that people like Sarah Ewart, who was denied an abortion in Northern Ireland in 2013 despite doctors saying her baby would not survive outside the womb, would be spared having to seek medical help in another country. It would treat those like Ashleigh Topley, who had to carry her pregnancy to term knowing that it had a fatal abnormality and would not survive. Seven years on, she still receives mental health support for this tragedy.

In October 2019, a judge at Belfast's High Court ruled that Northern Ireland's abortion law breaches the UK's human rights commitments.

Previously, NI's 1939 Bourne judgement allowed for abortion in cases where the mother’s mental health is at risk. In a more liberal society this would have meant abortion was legal, but in NI that was not enough. These regulations are now much clearer for outlining unequivocally that travel is not a human rights compliant solution, despite the proclamations of the Northern Ireland Office, who continued to advertise travel to England for NI women at the height of Covid-19.

The regulations also make clear it is the Department of Health who have to implement this. This means commissioning services, training staff, allowing trusts to get on with their work and publishing clear pathways. The NI Direct website has no information about what is currently available, should a woman be looking to seek an abortion; a Google search only brings news articles about campaigns. 

We have seen rogue pregnancy centres in Belfast pretend to be abortion clinics, but use this ruse to misinform women that abortions will give them breast cancer, and purposefully delay women so that they are beyond the 10 week limit that would mean they can easily access and Early Medical Abortion. We need clear signposting from government bodies that mean women in crisis do not end up in places where seeking help may result in the opposite, without their knowing. 

Alliance for Choice have been campaigning for abortion rights in NI for decades, and have been involved in a number of court cases, including one at the Supreme Court. We have helped people access pills from reputable sites, guaranteed access to abortions for those who cannot travel, gathered and shared people's stories of abortions to try and undermine the mytth of the 'typical abortion seeker', and have heard the horrific experiences so many have been put through because of archaic laws that prevented access to legal abortions in our own country. We helped our siblings in Ireland campaign for the abortion referendum, and have continually fought for free, safe, legal and local abortion access because we understand the toll on people that secrecy and travel takes. Last year over 1000 women and girls travelled to England in order to access abortion services, we will continue to lobby Stormont, Westminster and the Dáil to make sure this becomes zero. Healthcare should not involve an airport.

These regulations being ratified should have meant we have achieved our goals and can take a well-earned break, yet health trusts are now finding themselves put in the very difficult position of trying to provide with no resources, training, staff allocation, or public health campaign as the Department of Health drags its feet.

Until abortion is free, safe, legal and local and until we have access to abortion, we will continue to call those in power to account.