Words: Eva O’Beirne
The UK government has stepped in to fund abortion services in the North but activists are still wondering when these services will become available.
The UK government has said it was “forced to act” while Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris has said he will meet with chief executives of health trusts to ensure abortion services can be provided.
While individual health trusts and centres have offered limited services, Northern Ireland’s department of health never centrally commissioned the rollout of full abortion services due to opposition by the DUP.
Noting that the UK parliament had decriminalised abortion in the North in 2019, Heaton-Harris said it was “not right that three years on, women and girls in Northern Ireland are still unable to access the full range of health care to which they are lawfully entitled.”
In March 2022, a bill to establish safe access zones around abortion clinics was passed in the Assembly which was hoped to encourage the introduction of abortion services available as soon as possible.
In May 2022, the UK government intervened and laid regulations at Parliament that removed the need for the department of health to seek the approval of the wider NI executive to commission the services.
The regulations also gave the Secretary of State the power to step in and commission the services himself if the health minister failed to do so. As Health Minister Robin Swann did not act or give an indication whether she would, Heaton-Harris has now taken over.
“The UK government has been clear that the government would commission abortion services if the department of health did not act to provide them, said Heaton-Harris on the topic.
“Three years on from the decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland, we will be ensuring the commissioning of abortion services by the UK government.
“Ultimately, it remains the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Executive to fund abortion services in Northern Ireland.
“The UK government will ensure that appropriate funding is available to enable healthcare professionals to take the necessary steps to ensure that essential training and recruitment of staff can progress, and services can be implemented.”
Several activists and NI politicians have expressed that although services have been promised, there has been no viable timeline given, with Derry Alliance for Choice stating “Services TODAY – not tomorrow” on their Twitter.
In a similar fashion, People Before Profit Councillor Fiona Furguson said on the announcement: “We have been here before, with Tory promises that were not fulfilled. In the mouth of an election, now is the time to ensure parties in Stormont and Westminster feel pressure to fully commission, fund, and promote abortion services. Now is not the time to let up on campaigning.”
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