Are Northern Ireland civil servants and health trusts stalling on implementing abortion regulations passed by Westminster during Stormont’s suspension because of DUP pressure? Perhaps not, they have a lot else on their plate; but it doesn’t look good. How will GP surgeries react? Will there be a significant number of conscientious objectors to abortion referrals and prescribing morning after pills?
The Executive – wouldn’t you know it – is split. Arlene Foster has made no secret of her opposition but Michelle O’Neill is in favour, as is Alliance. Robin Swann the Ulster unionist Health minister who is otherwise heavily engaged has yet to pronounce. However the Health department had plenty of notice before the pandemic broke.
In the present hiatus, Amnesty International and remedial groups claim that the coronavirus lockdown could put a Northern Ireland woman seeking abortion at risk because abortion pills obtained over the internet are still illegal. And the old recourse to GB is now more difficult, as travel is mainly restricted to ferry services
The New York Times no less has carried the story filed by Amanda Ferguson.
One 39-year-old education worker from County Down who is seven weeks pregnant and seeking an abortion said she had been told by her local doctor that no provision had been set up to provide abortions in Northern Ireland.
“I was told I would have to take a ferry, take the pill in the clinic in the morning, then take the other pill and then get the ferry home,” she told Reuters.
“What is happening to women in Northern Ireland is inhumane,” she said. “Having to sneak out to get to Liverpool is not what should be happening in 2020.”
The only British clinics currently available for women from Northern Ireland seeking publicly funded abortions are in Manchester and Liverpool, but no direct flights are available due to the coronavirus lock-down, activists say.
A spokeswoman for the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, which operates the government’s booking system for Northern Ireland women requiring abortions, said that due to flight cancellations the ferry was currently the only viable route.
Alliance for Choice says it has been forced to return to its practice from before abortion was decriminalised and work with other groups to try to source abortion pills from the internet and get a doctor in the Netherlands to assess women and prescribe the pills even though it is not legal to prescribe abortion pills for home use in Northern Ireland.
However, even this is dependent on supply of pills which have been severely limited by coronavirus.
The legal framework has not been implemented by Stormont’s Department of Health yet and the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) had said until this happens, women could continue to travel to England, as journeys for medical need count as essential travel.
Terminations will be legal up to 12 weeks without conditions.
A limit of 24 weeks will apply in situations where continuing the pregnancy would involve risk of injury to the woman’s physical or mental health.
No time limit will apply in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, where there is a substantial risk that the foetus would die or, if born, would suffer a severe mental or physical impairment.
There will also be no time limit for an abortion if there is a risk to the life of the mother, greater than if the pregnancy is not terminated – or, the government says, “where necessary to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or girl, including in cases of immediate necessity”.
Medical professionals who can perform an abortion include a doctor, a registered nurse or a registered midwife.
Conscientious objection will apply – meaning those medical professionals who do not want to participate in carrying out a termination will not be obliged to do so.
The framework makes provision for abortions to be carried out in GP premises, clinics provided by a health and social care trust and HSC hospitals.
The UK government announced that the new regulations came into force on 31 March, adding….
The Department of Health in Northern Ireland will oversee the commissioning of abortion services in Northern Ireland, consistent with this framework. This includes the operational readiness of services.
The Department of Education and the Department for Communities also have responsibility for the implementation of relevant recommendations..
The Government will continue to work closely with the relevant Northern Ireland departments to ensure implementation of the recommendations, ensuring that the legal provisions for access to abortion services can also be accompanied by models of care, training, professional guidance and professional standards of practice to assist medical professionals.
The Covid 19 emergency might be regarded as good excuse to delay introducing abortion services. But the DUP and others may use the time to plan legal and political challenges to what the DUP would in other circumstances call “the sovereign will of Parliament”. (But not so much when they disagree with it)
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London