Shock at offer of free abortions for NI minors

18/10/2012:  Anti-abortion protesters outside the new Marie Stopes private clinic in Belfast
18/10/2012: Anti-abortion protesters outside the new Marie Stopes private clinic in Belfast

The government has been urged to rethink plans to offer girls under the age of 16 from NI access to free abortions in England – in some cases without parental consent.

Abortion remains illegal in Northern Ireland, except in very limited cases, and hundreds of women travel across the Irish Sea for terminations each year.

In June, the Westminster government said women from the Province would no longer have to pay for NHS abortions in England.

The scheme has since been extended to allow women to apply for hardship grants to cover the cost of travelling to England for abortions.

And it has been revealed that - if certain preconditions are met – minors seeking the fully- funded terminations can do so without permission from their parents.

The move has been slammed by Christian advocacy group CARE (Christian Action Research and Education), which claims it “undermines the role of parents and guardians in family life”.

The group also warned the decision could “potentially undermine” the justice system in Northern Ireland.

Describing the decision to fund abortions for children under the age of consent for sexual activity as “deeply troubling”, TUV leader Jim Allister has called on the government to “think again and consider the ramifications of this policy for child protection in NI”.The revelation came to light following a written question to the Department of Health by Lord Alton of Liverpool, who asked if eligible minors needed parental permission before travelling across the Irish Sea for the procedure.

Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health, Lord O’Shaughnessy clarified that a doctor or health professional is able to offer an abortion, without parental knowledge or consent, to a young person aged under 16 years, provided he or she is satisfied that certain conditions are met.

One of these guidelines, outlined by the Law Lords, states that the young person “understands the advice and has sufficient maturity to understand what is involved”.

Lord O’Shaughnessy added: “Health professionals should make every effort to encourage young women aged under 16 to involve their parents. If they cannot be persuaded to do so then they should be assisted to find another adult (such as another family member or specialist youth worker) to provide support.”

CARE Chief Executive Nola Leach said the plan undermines the rule of law in Northern Ireland.

She added: “There have been no details on how the government will be working with the Northern Ireland authorities to uphold the law in Northern Ireland. By law girls under the age of 16 cannot consent to sex, a criminal act will have occurred.

“This throws open huge questions on safeguarding and child sexual exploitation. What protections have been put in place to make sure that the child has not been coerced into having an abortion?”

North Antrim MLA and barrister Jim Allister warned that the move could put children at risk.

The TUV leader added: “ “We often hear that those who travel to Great Britain for abortions do so because of lack of support. Yet here the Government has confirmed that they will facilitate abortions without letting the child’s natural support network - their family - know.

“This leaves children vulnerable to those who engage in unlawful sexual activity putting pressure on girls to get rid of unborn children without telling a girl’s parents - something which could perpetuate abusive and illegal relationships.”

Commending Lord Alton of Liverpool for bringing the issue to light, Mr Allister added: “Where were local representatives from Northern Ireland - upon whose support the survival of the Government depends - when it came to exposing and challenging this issue?

“It would appear that having agreed to support Mrs May they are incapable of challenging issues like this where it matters, at Westminster.”

Last month, Women and Equalities minister Justine Greening said providers of abortions in England have been invited apply for state funding to extend their services to women from NI.