Fully funded abortion services to be set up in Northern Ireland three years after laws liberalised

Northern Ireland’s strict laws curtailing abortion had been relaxed in 2019, when landmark vote was carried by Westminster MPs during period of Stormont collapse

Fully funded abortion services are to be set up in Northern Ireland, three years after strict laws on terminations were liberalised.

Northern Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris confirmed on Friday that he has written to Stormont’s Department of Health instructing it to formally commission services.

The move follows a UK intervention in October, when Mr Heaton-Harris accused the department of “continued inaction” on the issue and said it was “not right” that women and girls were unable to access healthcare to which they were “lawfully entitled”.

Availability of funding means health trusts can now recruit and train staff in coming months to “support the development of sustainable services in Northern Ireland so that a full range of high-quality services are available”, he said.


The North’s abortion laws were relaxed in 2019, when a landmark vote was carried by Westminster MPs during a period of Stormont collapse.

While early medical abortions have been offered in health trusts since April 2020, access is fragmented as the Department of Health never fully commissioned the service due to a political impasse.

Severe staffing shortages forced two trust clinics to close temporarily, resulting in many women travelling to England for terminations.

Former Stormont minister for health Robin Swann always insisted the full roll-out of services required sign-off by the powersharing executive – which could never happen due to the DUP’s fierce opposition to abortion – but in May the UK government directed that Mr Swann’s department had the authority to act alone.

It also gave the Northern secretary the power to step in and commission services himself if the devolved minister failed to do so.

Mr Heaton-Harris wrote to Stormont’s party leaders on Friday informing them of the development.

In his letter, seen by The Irish Times, he states it will take “some time” to set up services, but that health trusts now had “both the assurance of a commissioned service and guarantee of funding” that would allow recruiting and planning for “full roll-out”.

He added: “I fully recognise that trusts need certainty on funding to ensure the provision of services. It remains the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Executive to fund abortion services in Northern Ireland, but the UK government will continue to ensure funding is made available in line with the financial requirements for phase 1 of commissioning until March 2025 or (if earlier), until the Department of Health is able to take full responsibility for the provision of that funding.

“This will enable healthcare professionals to take the necessary steps to ensure that essential training and recruitment of staff can progress, and services can be implemented.”

In a statement, the Department of Health acknowledged the legal requirements placed on it and said it had been working closely with the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) on the planned commissioning of abortion services in Northern Ireland:

“Today’s legal instruction on commissioning and the ring-fencing of funding will mean that trusts will have the necessary resources to ensure a full range of abortion services will be available in NI, including putting in place the necessary staffing and training required.”

Mr Heaton-Harris also issued a statement saying he will work with the Department of Health and healthcare professionals to “ensure a range of abortion services become readily available across all health and social care trusts in the coming months”.

Seanín Graham

Seanín Graham

Seanín Graham is Northern Correspondent of The Irish Times