British Government on notice over abortion in Northern Ireland – By Clare Bailey MLA

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When I googled ‘abortion Northern Ireland’ this statement was top of the search results;

“Health policy is part of the devolved powers transferred to the Northern Ireland Assembly (NIA) by the Northern Ireland Act of 1998 in the frame of the devolution in the United Kingdom. Abortion Law in Northern Ireland falls within the scope of the Criminal Law in Northern Ireland.”

While this is all factually correct it got me thinking of the detail missing from that one statement.

Health policy has indeed been devolved since 1998. Abortion healthcare for women in Northern Ireland has never been equal to that of women in other UK regions. The 1967 Act was not extended to Northern Ireland. Apart from a brief interlude during the early 1970s provision for extending the availability of this healthcare to Northern Ireland was the responsibility of Westminster.

Why did Westminster choose not to treat women from Northern Ireland equally during that period?

Furthermore, Abortion law does indeed fall within the scope of Criminal Law in Northern Ireland. This Criminal Law imposes some of the harshest penalties in Europe and the Western world, allowing for the life imprisonment of any woman choosing to terminate a pregnancy and to anyone found to have aided her. This is the fundamental reason why women are forced to travel to England, and beyond, in order to avail of abortion services. That is, if they happen to have the money to pay for the private healthcare and can manage to get time away from family and/or work commitments without needing to disclose why.

This is the main reason why some women given a diagnosis of FFA will be forced to travel to England – the main reason why a teenage girl pregnant as a result of repeated rape by her father will have to travel to England – the main reason why foetal remains need carried home in a camping cooler bag for FFA genetic screening and is the main reason a battered and abused mother will travel to England. The list of reasons is long and varied and are often cruel and inhumane.

Abortion law was devolved to the Scottish Parliament in December 2016. Nicola Sturgeon said at the time her government will explore how to allow Northern Irish women to obtain free access to abortions in Scotland’s hospitals. Jeffery Donaldson DUP MP was not amused and accused her of meddling in Northern Irelands affairs.

When Theresa May was forced to turn to the DUP to secure support and prop up her weak and wobbly Government after a disastrous snap general election result, who could have predicted that Northern Ireland’s abortion law would be thrust into the national spotlight after being hidden in a dark dank corner all these years?

Stella Creasy MP brought an amendment to the Queen’s speech on 21st June calling for free safe and legal abortion services in English NHS hospitals for women traveling from Northern Ireland.

This amendment was dropped and not debated after the Chancellor Philip Hammond weighed in at the last minute to state that the Government intends to fund abortions in England for women arriving from Northern Ireland, where it is illegal, thus averting a Tory backbench rebellion that threatened the very unstable £1billion confidence and supply arrangement with the DUP.

Since then, Scotland and Wales quickly followed with commitments from both Governments to follow suit.

There was no accusation of meddling in Northern Ireland affairs this time from Jeffery Donaldson. Instead Ian Paisley MP said this had nothing to do with Northern Ireland. However he has since stated during a commons debate that “if anyone thinks that we would take a view where we would trade that issue of life… on a political deal, they don’t understand me and they don’t understand my party and they need to be aware of that.”

So while this is a welcome small step forward to lessen the financial burden for Northern Irish women forced to travel to Britain, it is by no means close to treating us as equals across the UK.

It does nothing for those who cannot travel for a host of reasons. Those who are too young to know where to turn, women in abusive relationships, who cannot take time off work, who have caring responsibilities, who are prevented from travelling due to asylum restrictions. The list goes on.

So while our politicians continue on the quest to not reach agreement, to not form an executive and while the Secretary of State continues to take no control of the situation, the attention of everyone who wants to see abortion law reform in Northern Ireland needs to be firmly fixed on Westminster.

It is the Westminster Government which is  responsible for meeting International Human Rights standards and acting in accordance with its own Human Rights Act 1998.

Northern Ireland’s High Court has ruled that our abortion law is in breach of Article 8 and many international bodies such as the UN Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) agree. Yet Westminster has consistently failed to apply equal access to human rights standards for women in Northern Ireland.

If our Politicians want to bring the house down (again) and we enter a period of direct rule, let us be ready to demand our rights denied. To eventually trust women.

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  1. The Horner J decision was overturned by the Court of Appeal so Ms Bailey is wrong to state that our abortion law is in breach of Art 8 ECHR.

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