The NHS is right to stop charging Northern Irish women for abortions, but the fight shouldn't have taken this longby Sian Norris / June 29, 2017 / Leave a comment
Two weeks after the Supreme Court ruled that women from Northern Ireland would not be entitled to free abortion services on the NHS in England, the Government has announced a startling u-turn. Today, Women’s and Equalities Minister Justine Greening wrote to the Government to say that “at present, women from Northern Ireland are asked for payment . . . from now on it is our proposal that this will no longer happen.”
The u-turn comes after Labour MP Stella Creasy tabled an amendment requesting that Northern Irish women should be entitled to free abortions on the NHS in England. This morning the Speaker confirmed that the amendment—which had cross-party support from over 50 MPs—would be included in the Queen’s Speech debate. By the afternoon, Greening had sent her letter announcing the change.
Creasy’s proposed amendment formed part of the “My Pledge Her Choice” campaign. The campaign encouraged people across the UK to urge their MPs to protect and extend abortion rights across the country. Co-founder of the campaign, Ellie Cumbo, told me:
“Despite being in a small minority in the UK, those who oppose or want to limit abortion are well-funded and extremely vocal, especially in lobbying Parliament.”
“My Pledge, Her Choice was set up to give pro-choice MPs and candidates of all parties a platform to declare that they will always vote to protect, defend and extend abortion rights, no matter what.”
Although abortion is available (with restrictions) in England, Scotland and Wales, it remains illegal in Northern Ireland. Women and girls found to have accessed abortion services in the province face a prison sentence of up to 14 years. As a result of these draconian laws, 2,000 women and girls travel across the Irish Sea every year to have the procedure. Yet, despite being UK taxpayers, these women have so far not been entitled to a termination for free on the NHS, as their British counterparts are.
This created a situation where abortion is only available to those who can afford it—and out of reach for poorer, and more vulnerable, women and girls. Those who can’t scrape together the money to travel to the UK and have the procedure are forced to continue with an unwanted pregnancy, or risk their health and freedom with illegal abortion pills purchased online.
A challenge to the law
On 15 June, a mother and daughter challenging the current laws that force Northern Irish women to pay up to £900 to access abortion on the NHS were defeated in the Supreme Court. The court announced they had sympathy for the pair, but were restrained in their decision by Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt. He, in turn, claimed the continued ban of free terminations to Northern Irish women and girls was out of “respect” for the democratic decisions of their Assembly and its largest party the Democratic Unionist Party.
For the government to u-turn only two weeks later marks a huge and important victory for the abortion rights movement. By allowing women and girls from Northern Ireland to access free terminations on NHS England, parliament has gone some way to re-balancing this inequality.
Greening’s letter confirms that following discussions with the Department of Health, abortion for women travelling from Northern Ireland will be funded through the Government Equalities Office. This means that women and girls will no longer have to pay to access terminations on the NHS in England, and no English health service user will be disadvantaged as a result of the change.
A bittersweet victory
The government’s u-turn marks an important victory. But it is a bittersweet one too. It should not have taken so long for this historic imbalance to be rectified. And it should not have taken a potential government defeat by pro-choice MPs to prompt action on this issue.
And, of course, the fight is not over.
It will still be illegal for women and girls to have a termination in Northern Ireland, and those who are too poor to travel to England will still be forced to continue with an unwanted pregnancy or break the law and buy abortion pills.
Greening’s letter confirms that abortion law remains a devolved matter—and the Court of Appeal has announced that abortion legislation is a matter for the Assembly not the courts. With the Tory party dependent on the DUP, there is little chance that the government will pressure the Northern Irish Assembly to loosen its existing laws.
As such, everyone who cares about women’s rights and access to bodily autonomy must continue to lobby their MPs to protect and extend abortion rights everywhere in the UK, and particularly in the six counties of Northern Ireland, where it remains a criminal offence.
We have a long way to go—but today does matter. It’s a step forward in redressing the discrimination faced by Northern Irish women in need of a termination. As Cumbo put it:
“This amendment offers real hope that we may see our political leaders go further, and have the courage to overturn the Victorian laws that still make abortion a crime for some of the UK’s most vulnerable women.”
“This is a pro-choice country: it is long past time it had pro-choice laws.”