– The UK government could press for more abortion provision laws in Northern Ireland as it believes the decentralized government of the region has not fully implemented the Westminster-imposed regulations.
“We remain disappointed that the Department of Health and Northern Ireland’s executive branch failed to commission full abortion services following the change in law last March,” a UK government spokesman told the Press Association.
“We are continuing to monitor the situation closely, including considering further legislative action at Westminster, given the nature of the Secretary of State’s legal obligations for Northern Ireland in this regard.”
Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom but the abortion law is seen as a decentralized issue under the control of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Due to the suspension of the regional government, the British Parliament decriminalized abortion in Northern Ireland in October 2019 and obliged the British government to create legal access to abortion in the region.
Westminster regulations, which went into effect March 31, 2020, allow elective abortions for up to 12 weeks of gestation. Abortions for up to 24 weeks if the physical or mental health of the mother is at risk; and abortion with no time limit for severe fetal impairment or fatal fetal abnormality.
Abortions can be performed in the premises of general practitioners, as well as in health and social care clinics and hospitals. Medical abortions are allowed up to 10 weeks, and the first drug, mifepristone, must be taken in a clinic.
The Guardian told a source in the UK government that the Northern Irish executive “has not commissioned abortion services that conform to the rules originally set by the UK government almost a year ago”.
719 abortions were performed in Northern Ireland between March 31 and October 14.
According to the Press Association, medical abortions have been arranged with individual health foundations, but the Department of Health has not commissioned abortion care across the region.
Brandon Lewis, the UK’s foreign secretary for Northern Ireland, “has reportedly been raised by concerns that many women are still traveling to the UK” to obtain an abortion, the Press Association wrote.
Northern Irish women have been able to have free abortions from the National Health Service in England, Scotland and Wales since November 2017.
The Guardian reported that “there are still more than 100 women in England seeking abortions from Northern Ireland”.
According to the UK Department of Social Welfare and Scottish Information Services, 1,014 Northern Ireland women traveled to England or Wales for an abortion and fewer than 10 women traveled to Scotland for an abortion during 2019.
Northern Ireland’s Human Rights Commission has filed a judicial review with the region’s High Court for lack of commission and funding for abortion. The human rights group cited Lewis, the Northern Irish Executive and the Northern Irish Ministry of Health in its complaint.
Lewis wants the UK Parliament to allow him to order the Northern Irish Department of Health to commission a broader abortion regime.
The health department believes it needs regional government approval to act.
Northern Ireland’s First Secretary Arlene Foster, who is also the Democratic Unionist Party leader, and Jeffrey Donaldson, the party leader in Westminster, met with Lewis on March 18 to discuss his plans.
Donaldson recalled that “abortion is a distributed matter,” adding that “any move by an NIO minister to legislate on the head of the Northern Irish executive would raise serious questions about when and in what areas the government would enter one distributed administration can intervene. The DUP would warn the Northern Ireland office not to legislate on a matter that is fully decentralized and we will strongly oppose such action. ”
The Northern Ireland Assembly is a legislative body dominated by the DUP and Sinn Féin.
The Irish Nationalist Party has announced that it will call on the health department to provide full abortion legislation.
The Bill on Abortion of Severe Fetal Impairments (Amendment) introduced by a DUP member of the Legislative Assembly was passed in second reading on March 15 with 48 votes to 12. The bill would eliminate severe fetal impairment as a reason for abortion.
The Sinn Féin MLAs abstained, while the Social Democratic and Labor Party, Ulster Unionist Party and Alliance Party of Northern Ireland MLAs received a conscience vote.
Disability rights activists – including Don’t Screen Us Out and Heidi Crowter, an Irish woman with Down syndrome – have welcomed the bill, calling the current law “outright discrimination” against people with disabilities.
Prior to March 31, 2020, an abortion was only legal in Northern Ireland if the mother’s life was at risk or there was a risk of long-term or permanent serious damage to her mental or physical health.
Northern Ireland opposed the 1967 Abortion Act, which legalized abortion in England, Wales and Scotland. and bills to legalize abortion for fatal fetal abnormalities, rape or incest failed in the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2016.
In June 2020, UK Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Lewis’ Deputy, stated that while abortion regulation is a dispersed issue, local changes to Northern Ireland’s abortion law must be in line with human rights conventions.
The Northern Ireland Assembly had recently passed a non-binding motion rejecting the Westminster Parliament’s introduction of abortion regulations.
The 2019 amendment to the Northern Ireland Act (Executive Formation etc), which obliges the government to provide for legal abortion in Northern Ireland, was introduced by Stella Creasy, a Labor MP who represents a constituency in London.