Sinn Féin has welcomed a demand by the British government for progress on the introduction of abortion services in Northern Ireland as the party denounced Democratic Unionist opposition to the provisions as “shameful and disgraceful”.
Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister, Michelle O’Neill, accused the DUP and the Ulster Unionist party of trying to reverse legislation imposed by Westminster in 2019, which provided for terminations in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities.
“This is madness that needs to stop. Women are entitled to this. It needs to be delivered,” said the Sinn Féin leader at Stormont.
She was speaking after Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland secretary, wrote to the first minister, Paul Givan, and O’Neill to say he would soon “have no alternative but to take further steps to ensure that women and girls have access to abortion services as decided by parliament, and to which they have a right”.
O’Neill said: “I’m glad that I have the correspondences from Brandon Lewis that they will move if this blockage doesn’t end, they’ll move to commission the services. It’s long overdue and needs to happen now.”
Abortion was decriminalised in Northern Ireland in October 2019 after a Westminster vote and a supreme court challenge to laws that forced women with babies with fatal foetal abnormalities to travel across the Irish sea for terminations.
There were 22 terminations of pregnancy in hospitals in Northern Ireland during 2019-20, according to the local department of health. The services are not widely available, which means some women seeking an abortion beyond 10 weeks in their pregnancy have had to travel to Great Britain for legally permissible terminations.
In his letter, Lewis said he would act if it became clear to him that Northern Ireland’s department of health or its governing executive were not making sufficient progress or were intent on blocking the introduction of services.
The executive at Stormont have been formally directed to commission the services before the end of March 2022.
“It’s really disgraceful and shameful that at this stage, over a year after it was legislated for, the DUP and the Ulster Unionist party have failed to commission, or blocked services actually being commissioned, to provide that care for women whenever it’s needed,” said O’Neill.
Two weeks ago Lewis said he was “hugely disappointed” that the Northern Ireland executive and department of health were “continuing to seem to wilfully neglect the welfare and rights of women and girls in Northern Ireland”.
There has also been criticism of Sinn Féin for abstaining on a vote at committee stage on a DUP-proposed amendment to the law to ensure there is no opening for future legislation allowing for abortions in the case of non-fatal foetal abnormalities.
Sinn Féin said the amendment, tabled by Givan, was a “deflection” designed to appeal to the DUP’s anti-abortion voters. Sinn Féin said it had no option but to abstain as it was opposed to abortion for non-fatal abnormality pregnancies and this was the position it took when abortion was legislated for in the Republic of Ireland, where it is the main opposition party.
Previously, abortions were allowed in Northern Ireland only if a woman’s life was at risk or if she was at risk of permanent damage to her mental or physical health.