Department of Health ‘committed’ to Northern Ireland abortion services
Northern Ireland’s Department of Health is “committed” to fully establishing abortion services for women, the High Court in Belfast has been told.
The statement was made on the second day of a judicial review brought by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission against Secretary of State Brandon Lewis as well as the Northern Ireland Executive and the region’s Department of Health over delays in abortion law implementation.
However, while individual health trusts have been offering services on an ad-hoc basis, the Department of Health has yet to centrally commission the services.
In March, Mr Lewis took powers that would allow him to direct Stormont to set up services, but he has not done so yet.
In court on Thursday, Paul McLaughlin QC, representing the Department of Health, said that a delay in the transition period towards new services had been caused by the Covid pandemic.
He said: “Since the change in the law on abortion in October 2019 the department’s position has been and remains that it is at all times committed to the introduction of a fully funded and commissioned service right across Northern Ireland which would make abortion available in public health facilities.
“That is the position that it has adopted from the very outset of the change in the law.”
Mr McLaughlin continued: “That new service which was envisaged; there would inevitably be a transition period moving from the pre-existing service to the new service.
“One of the consequences is that during that transition period, the arrangements for abortion for women and girls living in Northern Ireland was that it would involve travel to England.
“Unfortunately it has been the inevitable consequence of the Covid pandemic that that transition period has been longer than expected.”
He added: “The minister (Robin Swann) has recognised the impact of the pandemic on existing arrangements and he has tried on two occasions without success, and has now made a third attempt to obtain Executive agreement on improved interim arrangements.”
Mr McLaughlin told the court that it was “quite wrong” to suggest that Mr Swann had done nothing.
He said: “What is alleged against the department is unlawful delay and that, as we have seen, has been caused by the pandemic.”
On Wednesday, counsel for the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, David Blundell QC, said that the failure to commission services so far was a “lamentable and deeply troubling exercise in finger-pointing” by both Westminster and Stormont.
He has asked the judge, Mr Justice Colton, to order the Secretary of State to set out a strict timetable for the commission of abortion services.
The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission’s case supports a woman who was affected by the lack of commissioning of services during the Covid-19 pandemic.
A number of anti-abortion protestors gathered outside the court on Thursday.
The case will resume on Friday when it will hear evidence from a legal representative for the Northern Ireland Executive.
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