Northern Ireland drags feet on abortion a year after UK orders roll-out

Pro-choice demonstrators take part in a march in Belfast
FILE PHOTO: Pro-choice demonstrators take part in a march in Belfast, Northern Ireland September 7, 2019. REUTERS/John Sibley

June 24, 2020

By Amanda Ferguson

BELFAST (Reuters) – Almost a year after the British parliament voted to legalise abortion in Northern Ireland, one of the last regions in Western Europe with a ban, women there face gaps in provision due to renewed local political roadblocks.

The region’s socially conservative health minister Robin Swann has declined to order the health service to provide abortions, commission information campaigns, and also declined to introduce emergency telemedicine measures offered in the rest of the United Kingdom during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Non-government groups and some medical professionals have stepped in to provide information and some services – 129 abortions took place from April 1 when the law changed to May 22, versus eight in the previous two years when terminations were allowed only if a woman’s life was at risk.

But the full range of services allowed under the law are not yet available, forcing some women to continue to travel to England or Ireland.

Politicians in the regional mandatory coalition government between pro-British unionists and Irish nationalists are divided – and the British parliament insists that any outcome must include the level of provision required by United Nations Human Rights law – leaving the route to a possible resolution unclear.

“I am gutted by what has been happening since the laws changed in April,” said Ashleigh Topley, 33, an activist who challenged abortion restrictions through the courts after being denied a termination in 2014 when her daughter suffered a fatal foetal abnormality.

“I should have not been as naive to think it was a done deal.”

Opponents, including leading Northern Irish politicians, say Britain’s parliament went too far last July when it voted to legalise abortion in Northern Ireland and create one of the most liberal abortion regimes in Europe, with abortion without restriction up to 12 weeks.


Health Minister Swann, a unionist who describes himself as “pro-life”, says he wants Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government to be involved in taking action which falls under his department’s remit.

In an official letter addressing concerns seen by Reuters, Swann wrote: “Until such times the commissioning of abortion services has been agreed by the Executive and consulted upon, service will not be widely available.”

However, Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill of the Irish nationalist Sinn Fein party has said the health minister must implement the regulations.

Swann’s department declined to comment.

The lack of guidance and training for medical professionals is proving problematic. The Alliance for Choice activist group says it has been contacted by a pro-choice doctor seeking guidance from them in the absence of official information.

A junior doctor working in obstetrics and gynaecology, who does not want to provide abortion services and spoke to Reuters on the condition of anonymity, said he also wants clarity: “A lack of meaningful conscientious objection to abortion would be extremely disappointing.”

For women seeking an abortion, the hurdle is finding information, with pro- and anti-abortion groups offering advice online in the absence of a state-funded public campaign.

As a result some women seeking abortion have unwittingly ended up on the premises of anti-abortion groups, said Breedagh Hughes, a former midwife and member of the Northern Ireland abortion and contraceptive task-force.

Some pro-abortion groups are helping women source abortion pills on the Internet, bypassing a requirement to attend a doctor in person, but the NGOs helping them find interim services implemented at a handful of sites by staff whose normal responsibilities are on hold due to COVID-19 fear this capacity is likely to disappear once COVID-19 restrictions ease.

“If the health minister continues to duck his obligations, when the impact of COVID subsides on normal sexual and reproductive services, then women will be sent back to England, to come back home bleeding and in pain,” Hughes said.

(Editing by Conor Humphries and Giles Elgood)

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