UK government to accelerate abortion services delivery in Northern Ireland

The UK government has announced plans to accelerate the delivery of abortion services in Irlanda del Nord almost three years after they were legalised in the region.

Brandon Lewis, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, told parliament on Thursday he was introducing legislation to bypass local authorities who had delayed the rollout of services.

The new regulations will remove the need for Northern Ireland’s Department of Health to seek approval from the Stormont executive to provide services. “Women and girls are still unable to access high-quality abortion and post-abortion care in Northern Ireland. This is entirely unacceptable,” Lewis said in a written ministerial statement.

The regulations are designed to override the Stormont executive, where the Democratic Unionist party (dopo) has led resistance to abortion services, and give the secretary of state the same power as the region’s health minister to deliver the services.

The Department of Salute would have no further barriers to commission and fund services and should do so without delay, said Lewis. “If the Department of Health does not commission and fund abortion services as directed, I will intervene further.”

Abortion was legalised in Northern Ireland in October 2019, bringing it into line with the rest of the UK, after a Westminster vote led by the Labour MP Stella Creasy. Access to abortion has been available since April 2020 after the legislation came into force but has been largely restricted to early medical terminations up to 10 settimane di gravidanza.

Most people in Northern Ireland supported decriminalisation, but Robin Swann, the Ulster Unionist health minister, declined to commission services, saying such a step required consensus in the five-party power-sharing executive, and the DUP was opposed. Some other parties also fear upsetting socially conservative supporters.

The UK government had told Stormont to commission services by March. The deadline came and went, prompting a clamour for action from abortion rights groups.

“This is a welcome and necessary move,” said Grainne Teggart, campaigns manager for Amnesty International UK. “Once again, action from Westminster is needed to ensure that abortion rights are realised here. Commissioned services, accessible to all who need them, are long overdue.”

Ruairi Rowan, director of advocacy and policy for Informing Choices NI, said interim services were “precarious” and that they denied timely access to counselling and funding.

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