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Legal action over failure to commission abortion services in Northern Ireland

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission has started legal action against the Department of Health for Northern Ireland, the NI Executive, and Secretary of State, over Department’s failure to commission abortion services following its decriminalisation in Northern Ireland almost one year ago.

Abortion was removed from criminal law in Northern Ireland on 31 March 2020. Since then, like all other medical procedures, abortion has been governed through medical regulations. They 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 termination. 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 the two required in Britain.

However, abortion services have not been commissioned and funded through the Health and Social Care system. This means that healthcare trusts in Northern Ireland have had to fund abortion services out of existing budgets. Some have had to stop providing services altogether. This has left women and girls, who are legally entitled to access these services, facing no choice but to risk travelling to Great Britain during the pandemic to access care or seek to terminate their own pregnancies without medical supervision.

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission believes the failure to commission services has breached the law under the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act 2019, which removed abortion from criminal law and introduced a statutory duty to implement fully the recommendations of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women on this subject. These specifically stated that to comply with human rights legislation women must have access to free and safe abortions, which would mean being funded through Health and Social Care.

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: ‘Since the passing of the 2019 legislation, the issue of abortion in Northern Ireland should be settled. It is no longer a criminal offence and the Northern Ireland Government has a duty to ensure that such services are safely and locally available. We believe that there is no legal basis for the Executive to use its power to prevent healthcare trusts from being able to provide appropriate care, and its failure to commission services has only served to put the health and wellbeing of women and girls at risk.’

Notes:

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

Read more about the NIHRC’s legal action.

Read more about our work on abortion and 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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