Following a landmark political concession in Westminster yesterday, June 29th, the British government has agreed to fund free abortions on the NHS in England for women travelling from Northern Ireland.
Chancellor Philip Hammond promised that Justine Greening, the Minister for Women and Equalities, “intends to intervene to fund abortions in England for women arriving here from Northern Ireland,” also promising extra funding for external organisations that provide these services.
In Northern Ireland the procedure is currently illegal except under extreme circumstances, in which rape, incest and foetal abnormality are not included. To access an abortion, the woman’s life must be at risk or a permanent or serious risk to her physical or mental health must be posed.
Despite being UK taxpayers, women from the North are forced to pay privately for an abortion (up to £1,400) or, in many circumstances, take abortion pills illegally accessed online. This, in particular, criminalises poorer women who cannot afford to travel across the Irish Sea to cover the cost of accommodation, time off work and the treatment itself. Those who can afford to make the expensive journey do so shrouded in shame and secrecy.
Last year alone, at least 724 Northern Irish women travelled to Britain to access a service freely provided to other UK women under the 1967 Abortion Act.
More than fifty MPs from across the political spectrum backed the call, made by Labour backbencher Stella Creasy, to extend abortion funding to Northern Irish women travelling to England.
Creasy’s call had been selected for inclusion in the Queen’s Speech, meaning current Prime Minister Theresa May – desperately clinging on to her slim majority in the House of Commons with the help of ten DUP MPs – ran the risk of defeat. After the disastrous general election for Mrs. May, which saw her lose her majority, she is left vulnerable to mutiny from within her own party who may back the Labour-led call. It is very likely due to this that the £1 million concession was made. Especially on the eve of the Queen’s Speech – seen as a vote of confidence by many – the Prime Minister was willing to concede to avoid further humiliation.
The move has been welcomed by both the British Pregnancy Advisory Service and UK abortion provider Marie Stopes, who believe it to be “a hugely positive step forward.” However, they are still critical of the lack of services in Northern Ireland, which could save “thousands of women each year the cost and stress of travelling.”
In spite of this minor victory for women’s reproductive rights, any chance of change to the strict abortion laws across Ireland remains unlikely. Ironically it is the DUP, the party propping up May’s government, who are the main contenders in vetoing any change to Northern Ireland’s abortion laws at present and who would be particularly hostile to the Tories’ huge concession.
The Court of Appeal in Belfast ruled that Northern Irish abortion law was not an issue for judges but the devolved – and currently collapsed – assembly at Stormont. This decision effectively overturns an earlier ruling that the current abortion laws were incompatible with human rights, a declaration backed by the UN. There is an appetite for change in Northern Ireland, with 69% popular support for abortion reform to the 156-year old Offences Against the Person Act, which currently governs abortion.
Following the government’s concession, Creasy’s amendment was withdrawn. Liberal Democrat Deputy Leader, Jo Swinson praised the Labour MP yet criticised Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt for only acting on the issue when faced with the prospect of defeat: “Women deserve better than having their rights reliant on House of Commons arithmetic.”
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