LONDON — After a week of mounting legal pressure, Northern Ireland’s Department of Health authorized abortion services in the region late on Thursday, putting into force legislation that overturns one of the world’s most restrictive abortion laws.
Last month, abortion rights were extended to Northern Ireland for pregnancies up to 12 weeks, but the introduction of services was delayed by the health minister, Robin Swann, who has been accused of using the coronavirus outbreak to stall the process because of his ideological objections.
Abortion is one of the most contentious issues in Northern Irish politics. The legislation legalizing abortion was passed by the British Parliament after the collapse of the region’s power-sharing government. The regional government was restored in January, and has been torn by the abortion issue ever since.
Before the laws went into effect on Thursday, women seeking free abortions in Northern Ireland had to travel to England. (Abortion services are available in the Republic of Ireland, but the cost of $500 is prohibitive for many women.)
Currently, because of the coronavirus lockdown, the only way to get to England is to take an eight-hour ferry ride from Belfast to Liverpool.
Once there, the women meet with a doctor and are required to take an abortion pill in the doctor’s presence. Many of them, unable to afford overnight accommodation, immediately return to the ferry, where they risk miscarrying during the trip home.
Outraged by the situation, women’s rights groups threatened the region’s health authorities with action in the courts. After receiving legal advice, the Department of Health said on Thursday that it would authorize medical professionals in hospitals and clinics to provide services.
“The confirmation we have received today means that Northern Ireland Health Trusts will now provide early medical abortion in Northern Ireland,” Emma Campbell, co-chairwoman of the Northern Irish reproductive rights group Alliance for Choice, said in a statement on Friday.
“This will prevent hundreds of women and pregnant people from having to travel needlessly to clinics in England placing themselves at risk,” she added. “We want to give thanks to dedicated people on the ground and honor those who never got the support of our health system.”
Abortion rights groups are now calling on health officials to authorize the provision of telemedicine abortions, recently introduced in the rest of the United Kingdom. That would allow Northern Irish women in the early stages of pregnancy to self-administer abortion medication at home after a remote consultation with a doctor.
The issue of telemedicine has been locked up in a debate between the two main parties of the power-sharing government: Sinn Fein, which supports telemedicine abortions, at least during the coronavirus outbreak; and the right-wing Democratic Unionist Party, which supports the old law, which barred abortion in all cases except to save the life of the mother.
Hazal Atay, a sexual and reproductive rights activist, defended the practice. “Telemedicine abortion has been proven to be safe and effective, legal restrictions in Northern Ireland prevent its application and deprive women and pregnant people of safe abortion access,” she said.