Human Rights Commission begins legal action to secure full abortion services across Northern Ireland
The Human Rights Commission begins a legal challenge in the High Court today to force Secretary of State Brandon Lewis and the Executive to commission full abortion services across Northern Ireland.
In 2019 MPs voted to relax abortion law in NI, but Executive ministers have not reached agreement on developing full services and women are still travelling to GB for terminations.
In February Mr Lewis laid regulations in Parliament, giving him power to direct the Executive to develop full services across NI – though he said he would prefer NI ministers to do so voluntarily.
At least one health trust has formally discontinued abortion services in recent months, citing shortages of staff and resources.
However, the NI Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) is not waiting any longer and today brings a legal challenge against Mr Lewis, the NI Executive and the Department of Health to force commissioning of full services.
The commission’s case supports a woman who tried to secure an abortion during lockdown last year but was told she could not have an abortion from her local trust as the service was unavailable.
She was told she would have to travel to England but was unwilling to make up reasons to doing so for her employer and opted to use pills supplied online instead.
She said: “I felt it was deeply unfair I could not access a service because of where I lived and that I had to go through this without local clinical support and ready access to after-care services if needed.”
Chief Commissioner Les Allamby said the NIHRC is taking action to ensure equal access to abortion services in NI compared to GB.
He said: “The secretary of state is saying h e is doing his best to resolve the matter, the NI Executive claims it is not a matter for them and the Department of Health say it cannot go ahead without the agreement of the NI Executive.
“This ‘pass the parcel’ where the music never stops has been going on for over a year with little sign of movement until we decided to go to court.”
Amnesty International and Informing Choices NI have also provided a joint intervention in the case with the commission, while the Health and Social Care Board is an interested party.
Pro-life campaign group, Precious Life, will be protesting outside the court.
Director Bernadette Smyth said: “Since March last year over 1,345 little babies have already been killed by abortion in Northern Ireland.”
She said the commission’s legal action is a direct threat to “the most basic and fundamental human right of all – the right to life”.
Former NI attorney general John Larkin is to head a separate legal challenge, against Westminster’s right to relax abortion laws in NI.
A spokeswoman for the UK Government said: “The UK Government has taken a further step to ensure women and girls have access to high-quality service provision for abortion and post-abortion care locally in Northern Ireland. The Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2021 made on Monday 22nd March and laid in Parliament on Tuesday 23 March give the Secretary of State a power to direct relevant Northern Ireland Ministers, departments and agencies to commission abortion services, consistent with the conditions set out in the 2020 Regulations.
“We will not let progress be drawn out indefinitely. We want to see concrete progress towards the commissioning of abortion services before summer recess, and if this is not achieved, the Secretary of State will not hesitate in issuing a direction to ensure action is taken so that the rights of women and girls can be properly upheld and they can have safe and lawful access to abortion services in Northern Ireland.”
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