On Wednesday 26th May the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission commenced legal proceedings in the High Court in Belfast over the failure to commission and fund abortion services in Northern Ireland. The hearing is against the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the NI Executive, and the NI Department of Health.
Abortion was legalised in Northern Ireland on 22nd October 2019. This followed the passing of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 in Westminster in July 2019, which stipulated that if the then-collapsed Executive in Stormont had not re-formed by midnight on October 21st, abortion in NI would be decriminalised. On 31st March 2020 the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2020 came into force and were then replaced for administrative purposes two months later by the Abortion (NI) (No 2) Regulations 2020. With the stalling of full services, in March 2021 the UK government published further regulations allowing NI Secretary Brandon Lewis to direct Stormont to set up abortion services; he is yet to avail of these powers. It was recently reported that a paper from NI Health Minister Robin Swann on commissioning abortion services was blocked from discussion by the NI Executive (the DUP, who along with Sinn Féin have the power to block papers from Executive discussion, are vehemently opposed to abortion).
NIHRC initiated the case in the High Court in support of a woman who was forced to go online to purchase early medical abortion pills due to the unavailability of any local abortion services. Despite abortion laws in Northern Ireland being liberalised and the legislative framework for terminations established, the Department of Health is yet to commission or fund termination services to implement these regulations across NI. This has resulted in the regional Health and Social Care Trusts providing such services as their resources allow - but the limitations on their resources have led to the suspension of some of these services. It was the suspension of her local Trust’s abortion service that left the woman in this case with the choice of either traveling to England during a pandemic to access services - something she was unable to do - or purchasing early medical abortion pills online.
The woman commented that whilst she felt lucky to have support around her in this instance, “having to deal with this unexpectedly and at such short notice was extremely stressful and I do wonder what it would be like for other women facing different circumstances. I felt it was deeply unfair (that) I could not access a service because of where I lived and that I had to go through this without local clinical support and ready access to aftercare services if needed.” Les Allamby, NIHRC Chief Commissioner, called it “indefensible that in 2021 women and girls are still being asked to travel to England to access abortion services or being left with no other option than to take unregulated pills.”
For further information, you can view a short video of NIHRC Chief Commissioner Les Allamby explaining their reasoning for taking the case here or read the BBC NI News piece on the case here. You can also read the NIHRC Monitoring Report on Reproductive Healthcare Provision in Northern Ireland (produced in May 2021) here.