Northern Ireland confirms abortions can now be carried out

Henry McDonald
Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Northern Ireland authorities confirmed on Thursday that abortions can now be carried out in the province’s hospitals, following threatened legal action by pro-choice groups.

Health officials signalled that terminations could go ahead after allegations that local anti-choice politicians were stalling implementation of a ruling that provided for services to be introduced by the end of March.

No such services had been put in place as of Thursday, prompting pro-choice groups to plan legal action. The Guardian understands that a woman seeking a termination and a doctor had been lined up to sue the health department for allegedly blocking the implementation of new legal abortion services.

Abortion became legal in Northern Ireland’s hospitals in October for terminations in most cases up to 12 weeks. There are also provisions for pregnancies beyond that period in extreme circumstances such as threat to the life of the mother.

Until the Labour MP Stella Creasy’s legislation extended abortion rights to Northern Ireland, it was the only part of the UK were terminations were banned in almost all circumstances.

Creasy’s law was pushed through the House of Commons last autumn at a time when the devolved Northern Ireland assembly was not operating because of political stalemate. Pro-choice campaigners have argued that the regional assembly at Stormont has no powers to block or stall provisions for legal abortions because Westminster passed the legislation.

It is understood that those behind the proposed legal action were going to raise claims in court that senior civil servants had told local health trusts that no abortion services could be put in place until the Stormont executive discussed the issue. They say the advice would have been exposed as misleading because it ignored the fact that the new law was already in place and imposed by Westminster regardless of what the executive did on the matter.

The Department of Health at Stormont confirmed late on Thursday afternoon that services for lawful abortions were now being introduced.

A spokesperson said that having received legal advice “registered medical professionals in Northern Ireland may now terminate pregnancies lawfully.” They pointed out that the regulations require such terminations be carried out on Health and Social Care premises.

The Department of Health also acknowledged that the coronavirus crisis had had an impact in its decision.

Pro-choice organisations have argued that the so called “escape valve” of English clinics and hospitals, where thousands of Northern Irish women used to obtain terminations before the law was reformed last year, was closed because of Covid-19.

They pointed out that the only route to clinics in Liverpool and Manchester is a freight ferry from Belfast to Birkenhead, which takes eight hours across the Irish Sea. Women who chose that option would also have virtually nowhere to stay, given that the coronavirus lockdown had forced hotels and guest houses to close.

“The interim arrangements currently in place involve abortion services continuing to be provided in England, with no costs incurred by local women availing of these services. This arrangement has been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic and the severe reduction in travel options,” the spokesperson said.

Alliance for Choice welcomed the department’s apparent U-turn.

Emma Campbell, AFC’s co-convenor said: “The confirmation we have received today means that Northern Ireland health trusts will now provide early medical abortion in Northern Ireland. This will prevent hundreds of women and pregnant people from having to travel needlessly to clinics in England placing themselves at risk.”

Campbell said confirmation was also needed that care beyond 12 weeks would also be available for those who need it as per the regulations. Northern Ireland also needed a telemedicine care programme for patients in crisis pregnancies and healthcare workers who are self-isolating.