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Northern Ireland women accessing safe legal abortions following decriminalisation

Over 700 safe abortions have taken place in Northern Ireland since decriminalisation and new abortion regulations came into force in April. This has prevented those women from either having to make the difficult journey to Great Britain during the pandemic to access care, seek illegal online services without medical supervision, or be forced to continue their pregnancies against their will and in violation of their rights. Northern Ireland Humanists has welcomed this figure but warned that there are still barriers preventing women from accessing these services.

Abortion was removed from criminal law in Northern Ireland on 31 March. From this point onwards, like all other medical procedures, abortion is governed through medical regulation. The regulations allow women to access services for any reason up to 12 weeks’ gestation, and up to 24 weeks in cases where the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or girl, greater than the risk of terminating the pregnancy. Terminations in cases of fatal foetal abnormality are permitted after 24 weeks.  In cases where the pregnancy has not exceeded 12 weeks, one medical professional can certify the procedure rather than two.

Since the new regulations have been in place, the commissioning of abortion services has been patchy across Northern Ireland, with up to one-third of women not able to access services due to the Department of Health’s failure to commission and fund services and the pressure on healthcare services due to the pandemic.

The figure was given by the Minister of State for Northern Ireland, Robin Walker, in response to a parliamentary question by the MP Rupa Huq. Mr Walker acknowledged the ‘health impacts, and stress, that can arise if women and girls choose, or have, to travel from Northern Ireland to Great Britain to access abortion care’ and committed to ‘continuing to engage with the Northern Ireland Minister of Health and his department on progressing with the full commissioning of services for access to safe and lawful abortion care for women and girls in Northern Ireland.’

Humanists UK and Northern Ireland Humanists helped spearhead the campaign for legal abortion in Northern Ireland, intervening in the four landmark court cases that helped bring this change about, and working with the 100+ members of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group to lobby in Westminster for reform.

Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator commented, ‘We are pleased that many women can now access safe legal abortion services in Northern Ireland. This is a huge step forward from the position only one year ago, where nearly all abortions were illegal and women, even in situations of rape, incest, and fatal fetal abnormality, faced imprisonment if they were unable to travel to a different country for care.

‘However, due to the patchy commissioning, many women continue to experience difficulties in accessing abortion services, with many still being forced to make the unacceptable journey across the Irish Sea. We welcome the strong commitment from the UK Government to work with the Northern Ireland Executive to remove these remaining barriers.’

Notes:

For further comment or information, please contact Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator at Boyd.Sleator@humanism.org.uk or phone 07918 975795.

Read more about our work on sexual and reproductive rights.

Northern Ireland Humanists is part of Humanists UK, working with the Humanist Association of Ireland. Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by 100,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.

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