Barriers to abortion in Northern Ireland removed by UK government

Northern secretary Brandon Lewis takes legal steps to ensure services fully delivered

The UK government has taken legal steps to ensure abortion services are fully delivered in Northern Ireland following Stormont’s “failure” to do so.

In a written statement to Parliament on Thursday, Northern secretary Brandon Lewis said he has a "legal duty" to act and confirmed he was laying further regulations that would remove "barriers" to services being introduced.

Abortion is a devolved matter and a March 31st, 2022 deadline was set last year for the North’s Department of Health to get approval from the Stormont executive to ensure services were established across the North’s five health trusts.

However, following the collapse of the executive in February after the DUP's First Minister Paul Givan resigned, abortions have only been offered on an ad hoc basis in individual trusts.

Mr Lewis accused the executive and department of “failing” women, warning he will “intervene further” if no action is taken.

He previously said he would “intervene directly” if the issue was not resolved following the May Assembly elections.

The new UK government regulations introduced on Thursday will remove the need for the executive to approve plans - meaning the Department of Health can act and centrally commission services.

“Women and girls of Northern Ireland must have access to safe, high-quality abortion services in Northern Ireland, as is their right,” Mr Lewis said.

“It is absolutely unacceptable that the Executive and Department of Health have failed women and girls, meaning that they cannot currently access the same basic abortion healthcare that is available to women and girls in the rest of the UK.

“That’s why I am acting to remove any further barriers to delivering services.

“The Department of Health must drive forward the commissioning of abortion services without further delay to ensure that safe abortion becomes embedded into the health and social care system in Northern Ireland.”

He added: “If the Department of Health does not commission and fund abortion services as directed, I will intervene further.”

Access to abortion has been available in the North since April 2020 after new laws came into force. Services currently offered are largely early medical terminations up to 10 weeks of pregnancy.

A small team of medical experts been set up to work alongside the department and report back to Mr Lewis on progress.

The DUP is fiercely opposed to abortion and DUP MP Carla Lockhart criticised the UK move, urging Mr Lewis not to "muddy the waters by wading in on an issue that is devolved".

“This is a bad decision by the Secretary of State and a bad day for Northern Ireland,” Ms Lockhart, who chairs an all-party Parliamentary Pro-Life group, said.

However, Sinn Féin’s deputy leader Michelle O’Neill welcomed the development and called for services to be immediately established.

“Finally women will receive the modern compassionate health care they are entitled to. The commissioning of abortion services has been blocked to this point. No more delays. It must be provided now,” she tweeted.

Amnesty International said it was a “welcome and necessary move” by the British government.

"We urge the Secretary of State to not wait and urgently establish and embed abortion services. Until this is done, access will remain in a fragile state," Grainne Teggart, Campaigns Manager for Amnesty International UK, said.