The picture has emerged after the UK Government took legislative action today to remove the need for the Department of Health to seek Stormont Executive approval to commission abortion services aross NI. This means the Department of Health will have no further barriers to commission and fund services.
Liberalised abortion laws were controversially imposed on NI in 2019 by Westminster while the assembly lay suspended after the resignation of Martin McGuinness.
However, while individual health trusts in NI currently offer services on an ad-hoc basis, the Department of Health has yet to centrally commission the services. Health Minister Robin Swann’s party, the UUP, has previously argued that he could not progress the matter as it was controversial and required cross party approval at Executive level, under the Ministerial Code.
The pro-life DUP, meanwhile, had refused to agree to the issue being tabled on the Executive’s agenda.
Secretary of State Brandon Lewis had given the Stormont administration a March 31 deadline to commission the services. With that date having passed and the Executive currently not functioning due to a stand-off over post-Brexit trading arrangements, Mr Lewis has now moved to lay new regulations at Westminster to break the logjam.
That means Minister Swann, who remains in post in a shadow capacity despite the powersharing crisis, can - in principle - now move to roll out the policy.
Mr Lewis has asked for a “clear and unambiguous commitment” from Mr Swann to progress the issue without delay; pro-choice groups have demanded Mr Swann does so, while criticising his track record on progressing the issue.
mr Swann is a member of the UUP, whose leader Doug Beattie is strongly pro-choice, although the party allows members a free vote on the issue. If Mr Swann does not act, the regulations laid by Mr Lewis will also empower the Tory secretary to intervene in the department and commission the services himself.
In preparation for that potential scenario, Mr Lewis has established a team of medical experts within the Northern Ireland Office to work alongside the Department of Health and report back to him on progress.
Mr Lewis said: “Women and girls of Northern Ireland must have access to safe, high-quality abortion services in Northern Ireland, as is their right. It is absolutely unacceptable that the Executive and Department of Health have failed women and girls, meaning that they cannot currently access the same basic abortion healthcare that is available to women and girls in the rest of the UK.
“That’s why I am acting to remove any further barriers to delivering services. The Department of Health must drive forward the commissioning of abortion services without further delay to ensure that safe abortion becomes embedded into the health and social care system in Northern Ireland.”
Responding to the move, Mr Swann said he would be seeking legal advice.
“The Secretary of State’s written statement and new regulations will be given careful consideration by my Department,” he said.
“I will be seeking further legal advice, including with regard to a Northern Ireland Minister of Health’s legal responsibilities under the NI Ministerial Code.”
A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said early medical abortions up to 10 weeks are currently available to all women in Northern Ireland on an uncommissioned basis. he acknowledged other abortion services are not provided in the region and said women and girls seeking those services can access them in Great Britain through funding arrangements put in place by the Government. The spokeswoman said Mr Swann has been unable to bring forward commissioning proposals to the Executive in the absence of a functioning administration.
Reacting to the news, Sinn Fein Deputy President Michelle O’Neill tweeted: “Finally women will receive the modern compassionate health care they are entitled to. The commissioning of abortion services has been blocked to this point. No more delays. It must be provided now.”