Vicky Spratt | Deputy Editor | Thursday, 29 June 2017

Today MPs Will Vote On NHS Abortions For Northern Irish Women

Women From Northern Ireland Will Now Be Able To Get Abortions On The NHS In England

The Debrief: Meanwhile, judges at the Belfast Court of Appeal have ruled that the decision on abortion legislature falls on Stormont, Northern Ireland’s government and not the courts.

The Chancellor, Philip Hammond has announced that the Government will fund abortions for women who travel from Northern Ireland, where it is almost completely banned, to other parts of the UK for medical treatment. The move comes after Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt's refusal to fund abortions for Northern Irish women only a few weeks ago

A vote had been scheduled to take place in the House of Commons on the issue later today after John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons has selected an amendment to the Queen’s Speech, co-ordinated by Labour MP Stella Creasy, which called on the Government to allow women from Northern Ireland to have abortions for free in England. It was thought that while DUP MPs would vote against the amendment, some Tory MPs were planning to rebel against Theresa May's Government to support it. 

Earlier this year The Debrief went to Belfast to meet Northern Irish abortion rights activists. Emma Gallen, who is in her early twenties and campaigns as part of the Alliance for Choice, said that this announcement was 'a fantastic step in the right direction' but added 'it's still just a step'. 'Women's problems' she told The Debrief, 'are still being exported from Northern Ireland but, finally, Westminster is hearing us at least.' She thinks further change is needed, 'there must be a ruling on this as a human rights issue in Northern Ireland, abortion should be readily available to women here, without having to get on a plane.' 

Indeed, the situation in Northern Ireland remains the same. Earlier today the Belfast Court of Appeal voted on whether or not Northern Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws breach the human rights of women and girls. This came following a High Court ruling in 2015 that the law in Northern Ireland breached the European Convention on Human Rights which was appealed by both the Department of Justice and Northern Ireland’s attorney general. 

The appeal judges have voted in favour of the Attorney General and Department for Justice, and said that it is not up to the courts to decide abortion law. Instead, they have said, the decision on abortion legislature falls on Stormont, Northern Ireland’s government.

Naomi Connor, an abortion rights campaigner and Marie Stopes escort who also featured in The Debrief documentary, said 'this has been a day of highs and lows for those of us campaigning for free, safe and legal access to abortion rights in Northern Ireland. On the one hand, the High Court here has ruled that abortion is a matter for the Northern Ireland Assembly, ruling that the restrictions to abortion here do not breach Article 3 or 14 of the Human Rights Act despite the original High Court ruling. For the Government in Westminster to signal their intent to fund abortions for women travelling to England from Northern Ireland on the same day is ironic however we welcome this concession.'

'Whilst women will still be forced to travel to access abortion, this decision will mean they will not have the added worry of how they will fund to the procedure. It means the most to those of us who can afford it the least' Naomi added. 

A spokesperson for the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (bpas) expressed the organisation’s disappointment at this morning's ruling in Northern Ireland, telling The Debrief ‘bpas is very disappointed with this ruling, which could have paved the way for a small number of women in extremely desperate circumstances to obtain abortion care at home in Northern Ireland. The decision may yet be appealed, but whatever the outcome it will do nothing for the vast majority of women who do not have a diagnosis of a fatal foetal anomaly or who have not been sexually abused - but who are simply trying to make the choice that is right for them and their families when faced with an unplanned pregnancy or a pregnancy they cannot continue.’

Amnesty International have welcomed UK Government abortion funding for women from Northern Ireland. Grainne Teggart, Northern Ireland Campaign Manager for Amnesty International, said it was 'an important step for women’s rights and towards ending the ludicrous situation where women and girls in Northern Ireland are denied the right to healthcare that those in the rest of the UK can take for granted'.

However, of the ruling at the Belfast Court of Appeal this morning she said: ‘today’s absurd ruling is an insult to women and girls and to everyone across the country who cares about justice. The judges had a chance to put right centuries of human rights abuse but with a flick of the pen they’ve just let down another generation of women and girls in Northern Ireland’.

She added, ‘Stormont has been failing women for too long and must act urgently to reform Northern Ireland’s abortion laws and prioritise bringing legislation into line with international human rights standards, as previously called for by UN committees. This must include the decriminalisation of abortion. Women must no longer be forced to leave Northern Ireland for healthcare to which they are legally entitled.’

Whether the Chancellor's announcement will see a significant change in the way abortion in Northern Ireland is addressed remains to be seen. In 2008, a parliamentary move to extend the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland was actually blocked by the then-Leader of the House of Commons, Harriet Harman.  

The BBC reports that, at the time, the Government said ‘it feared the existing UK abortion laws could have been threatened in the House of Lords as a result had the vote passed. But there was speculation that the Labour government had struck a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party to leave the abortion laws intact in return for their support for its plans to detain terrorism suspects without charge for 42 days.’

Since then, very little legal progress has been made to ensure the needs of Northern Irish women are being met despite advice from global bodies like Amnesty International and the United Nations. Today's announcement could signal a step towards the extension of the 1967 Act. 

You might also be interested in:

Meet The Women Fighting For Abortion Rights In Northern Ireland 

Theresa May Is Playing Politics With Women's Bodies

'Arrest Me Or Change This Law' 

Follow Vicky on Twitter @Victoria_Spratt 

 

Tags: Abortion, Politics