UK government preparing to override Northern Ireland on abortion services
Northern Irish executive has not commissioned any services since terminations became legal in 2019
The UK government is taking legal steps to override the Northern Ireland executive and directly instruct the nation’s health trusts to provide abortion services, saying it will “take the necessary powers” to directly commission services if urgent progress is not made.
The secretary for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis, set out the UK government’s legislative options in strong language on Thursday, after it became “increasingly clear” that the Northern Ireland Department of Health (NI DoH) will miss the end of March deadline to fully commission abortion services in the country.
Lewis said in a written ministerial statement that planned regulations would “remove the need for executive committee approval before services can be commissioned”, which has been a major obstacle to the provision of abortions.
Terminations have been legal in Northern Ireland since 2019, but services have not been commissioned and individual clinicians have worked to provide a piecemeal service. A high court judge ruled in October last year that Lewis had failed to uphold his duties to provide full abortion services in Northern Ireland after a judicial review was brought by a woman who was told to travel to England for an abortion during the pandemic.
“Women and girls must have access to safe, high-quality abortion care in Northern Ireland as they do everywhere else in the UK,” Lewis said. “It has become increasingly clear the Northern Ireland Department of Health will fail to commission abortion services in full by the deadline I set out last year despite being given every opportunity to do so.”
Lewis said he was setting up a “small team” in the Northern Ireland Office to work directly with the NI DoH, adding that he would have the “powers to intervene directly following the assembly elections in May, if sufficient progress has still not been made”.
Abortion was legalised in Northern Ireland in October 2019 after a Westminster vote led by the Labour MP Stella Creasy took advantage of a paralysed Stormont, despite an 11th-hour attempt by the region’s assembly to block change. Officials confirmed in April 2020 that terminations could go ahead after pro-choice campaigners threatened to take legal action over alleged attempts to stall their provision.
Creasy, whose amendment paved the way for the change in the law, said on Thursday that women in Northern Ireland had been waiting for equal access to their human rights for three years. “It is now imperative that the government confirm the timetable for action and what sanctions they will use should anyone try to prevent progress in delivering services to ensure that there is no further delay,” she said.
The Northern Ireland chief commissioner for human rights, Alyson Kilpatrick, welcomed the step, but stressed that the secretary of state was under a statutory duty to act quickly, and said the organisation was concerned about a lack of deadline.
“In 2022, women and girls in Northern Ireland are still faced with deplorable options, including having to travel to England to access abortion services, being forced to continue a pregnancy against their wishes or take unregulated abortion pills,” she said.