Pro-life groups have reacted with shock to a declaration by the government – just days after it formed an alliance with the anti-abortion DUP – that Northern Irish women can now have free terminations in England.
A string of groups, including the Presbyterian Church, denounced the move, which came as the Tory leadership was attempting to stave off a possible defeat during a vote in the House of Commons.
It began when a Labour MP tried to bring a vote before the House that would have amended the Queen’s Speech (which sets out the government’s plans for the coming years), so that it would include a promise to pay for the cost of abortions for any women who come from Northern Ireland to England to end their pregnancy.
If this amendment had succeeded, it would have led to the bizarre scenario of the DUP – the Conservatives’ new allies – being confronted with the prospect of voting on what was essentially a pro-abortion Queen’s Speech.
But by making the pledge without it being put to a vote, the government avoided this highly embarrassing scenario.
Whilst welcomed by many groups – including the Royal College of Midwives – the decision was described variously as “very disappointing”, “most shocking”, and “appalling” by anti-abortion organisations.
Just hours earlier, many of the same groups had been hailing a decision taken by judges in Belfast, who quashed a previous court ruling that found Northern Irish abortion law to be incompatible with human rights legislation.
The DUP noted the government’s announcement does not alter abortion rules on Northern Irish soil.
The News Letter has previously examined figures showing how many Northern Irish women travel to the UK mainland for abortions.
The figures looked England and Wales, and showed that 837 women made the journey in 2014 – almost an all-time low since records began in the early 1970s.
There has been a steady decline spanning decades in Northern Irish women seeking abortions there, whilst at the same time abortion figures for women who are English or Welsh residents tended to increase; in 2015, that figure stood at 185,824.
Emma Campbell, chairwoman of Alliance 4 Choice, said that women from Northern Ireland can be charged between £600 and £2,000 in Great Britain for terminations there via non-NHS organisations like Marie Stopes, depending at the stage of their pregnancy.
On top of this comes travel and accomodation expenses.
She said she and her colleagues are “delighted” money will now be found to cover the cost of the procedures, adding: “They haven’t hammered out any of the detail of what that looks like yet.
“It’d be great if it included travel like it does for other treatments.”
Joining her in welcoming the move were groups including Unite the Union, the Royal College of Midwives, the British Pregnancy Advice Service, and the Alliance Party.
The DUP last night issued a statement to the News Letter which, whilst declaring that it had opposed Labour’s amendment calling for free abortions for Northern Irish women, contained no criticism of the government for deciding to essentially adopt that same measure.
It said: “Requesting payment from Northern Ireland women, whilst they access termination services, was always a matter for NHS England. Northern Ireland was not involved in the decision to request payment.”
The decision came only about a fortnight after the Supreme Court ruled that the NHS in England was not obliged to provide abortions for free to Northern Irish women.
The Presbyterian Church said it was “deeply saddened and puzzled” by yesterday’s government decision.
It added: “As a strongly pro-life Church we believe that the lives of women and unborn children matter profoundly, as human life is incredibly precious and special to God – both lives matter.”
Precious Life dubbed the move “appalling, disgusting, inhumane” decision, whilst Christian group the Iona Institute NI said it is “very disappointed”.
The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children said it was “a most shocking development” which represented “a black day for unborn children, for mothers and for democracy”.