Northern women appeal denial of free abortions in Britain

Supreme Court to hear challenge to ban on women accessing NHS-funded terminations

An appeal opens on Wednesday in the Supreme Court in London against a decision preventing women from Northern Ireland having access to free abortions under the National Health Service (NHS) in Britain.

The case is being taken by a 19-year-old woman and her mother from Northern Ireland challenging the current law that bars women from the North who travel to England for abortions being treated for free under the NHS.

The woman, known as A to protect her identity, travelled to England for an abortion in October 2012 when she was 15. The termination and travel costs amounted to £900 (€996).

She and her mother, known as B, claimed she should have had a right to free abortion services but lost both cases, first in the High Court, and then in the Court of Appeal. She was, however, granted permission to appeal that ruling to the Supreme Court.

Abortion is currently only legal in Northern Ireland where there is a threat to the life of the woman or where there is a risk of a serious and adverse effect on her physical or mental health which is either long-term or permanent.

A coalition of groups is supporting the two women in the Supreme Court appeal. These comprise Alliance for Choice, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, Birthrights, the Family Planning Association, and the Abortion Support Network.

Human rights

Goretti Horgan of Alliance for Choice said current legislation in Northern Ireland smacked of one law for the rich and another for the poor.

“Those unable to get the money together to travel and pay for a private procedure must either see their daughter continue a pregnancy that will end her own childhood or risk prosecution for getting pills which are available on the NHS in England. This situation contravenes a range of human rights obligations and cannot be allowed to continue,” Ms Horgan said.

Ann Furedi, chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, said it was "simply unjust that women from Northern Ireland are forced to pay for healthcare that is provided free of charge to women resident in all other parts of the UK".

“For some women this financial barrier can be insurmountable, leaving them with no other option than to risk criminal punishment and use abortion medication bought online, illegally,” she said.

“Even those who do make the journey to England for abortion care will often have to ensure delays as they try to raise the necessary funds. This is no way to treat women in the 21st century.”