Ministers 'must intervene' in Northern Ireland amid doctors' fears over referring patients to England for abortions

Kate Proctor

Ministers must intervene in Northern Ireland so doctors feel safe telling patients they can access free abortions in England, a senior Tory warned.

Maria Miller, who chairs the cross-party Women and Equalities Select Committee, said medics fear they will be prosecuted if they refer women to English NHS services for terminations.

She urged the Government to stop “hiding behind the cloak” of the collapse of Stormont Government and make decisions on the matter from Westminster.

Mrs Miller said: “Doctors are fearful in Northern Ireland of criminal action. There is confusion in clinician’s minds and the Government needs to act rapidly to remove that confusion.”

“The Government can’t hide behind the cloak of the executive in Northern Ireland not sitting. The executive has ceased, they have to act on this because women’s lives are being affected every single day and we can’t wait for the executive to sit again.”

Women from Northern Ireland have been able to access free abortions on the NHS since 2017, however the Women and Equalities Select Committee found that doctors still believe they will be prosecuted in the courts if they refer patients.

Mrs Miller said the guidance issued by the health services in Northern Ireland needs to be updated to give medics clarity, and statements need to be made by Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley and International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt, who oversees the Government’s Equality Office, on the legal status of the Government’s policy.

Ms Mordaunt has already said she wants the Director of Public Prosecutions to issue a statement to make the rules clearer.

The committee’s damning report also called on ministers to address human rights breaches faced by women in the province over abortion access.

A UN committee found “grave” and “systematic” breaches of women’s rights in Northern Ireland over abortion access. The UK Supreme Court also identified a breach of human rights over women not being able to access abortions in the case of fatal foetal abnormality, rape or incest.

Abortion is only permitted to take place in Northern Ireland if the women’s life is at risk.

A Government spokesperson said: “We welcome the Committee’s work on this important issue. As abortion is a devolved matter, the best way forward is for locally accountable politicians in Northern Ireland to make decisions. We want to see devolved government restored at the earliest opportunity.”