At the end of June this year, the UK Government Equalities Office announced that they would fund abortion treatment for those who travel to Great Britain from Northern Ireland. This was accompanied by supporting statements from the first ministers for both Scotland and Wales. The timing of this announcement was very interesting; off the back of the ‘confidence and supply’ deal between the DUP and Conservative party, Stella Creasy, Labour MP for Walthamstow,
Organised an amendment to the Queen’s Speech allowing for this funding. In order to avoid an embarrassing defeat the government made the announcement without the amendment needed to proceed. This also let the DUP off the hook as they neither had to take part in a debate on the amendment, nor vote in support of it (which the confidence and supply deal would no doubt have forced them to do).
It must be remembered that the lack of NHS provision for women from Northern Ireland was highlighted by the A and B case just 2 weeks before the announcement. The Supreme Court narrowly decided that while the Secretary of State for Health at Westminster could choose to fund abortion care, they didn’t have to.
Due to a combination of; the Supreme Court Ruling, the deal between the Tories and anti-choice DUP, the near illegality of abortion in NI, the cost for the 1000 women who travel annually, and the very real possibility of criminalisation for those who perform their own abortion or help someone to, the pressing issue of abortion access in NI became apparent to the wider British public. These factors created the perfect storm, enabling a group of cross-party MPs organised by Stella Creasy to force the government’s hand.
While the announcement for funding of treatment is undoubtedly welcome, it is far from a solution. What should be an uncomplicated and relatively local day-procedure becomes much more. As it still remains unclear whether travel will also be funded, the cost of flights and accommodation will be a barrier for many, (although the charity Abortion Support Network can help with these costs if abortion-seekers are lucky enough to know of them). For low income women, those in precarious employment, or zero hours contracts, taking time off work to travel for healthcare that should be available locally will not be an option. As the majority of women who have an abortion already have children, childcare is yet another financial and logistical pressure. What about people with controlling and abusive partners? How are they to arrange a trip to England? What about minors? What about people without the necessary immigration status and travel documents?
One aspect that must be looked at closely, and will potentially require legislative change, is abortion care for people with additional health needs. Currently there is no provision for people from Northern Ireland to be admitted to NHS facilities for abortion healthcare. This needs to be reviewed urgently.
Following the announcement, both BPAS and Marie Stopes waived charges for clients for Northern Ireland. This was a hugely positive move as it meant people did not have to put off care while details of funding are still being worked out. Marie Stopes operates the only clinic in Northern Ireland which provides private abortion, it operates within the very strict legal framework and is picketed daily. They did waive fees at their Belfast clinic, meaning that people could come to Belfast for a consultation or scan before making arrangements to travel to GB. Just a few weeks later they have been forced to recommence charging, saying that they have been given government guidance that funding is for treatment taking place in GB only. This is hugely disappointing. Also disappointing is a letter from the Stormont Department of Health Permanent Secretary Richard Pengelly instructing medical professionals that it is essentially ‘business as usual’ when it comes to abortion healthcare. Remember the most previous draft guidelines had a ‘chilling effect’ on medical practitioners, and the most recent published in 2016 failed to provide much clarity. Just 16 NHS abortions were carried out per year in both 2014/15 and 2015/16 in Northern Ireland, half that of previous years. While the initial announcement of funding seemed like a chink of light, two months on and we still don’t have details of the scheme, the government has forced MSI to backtrack on free appointments in Belfast, and local civil servants in lieu of a government are dissuading doctors from telling patients about the possibility of funded treatment in GB. We are still bereft of a clear care pathway for those requiring abortions and medical professionals continue to have to muddle through the best care.
While the funding is not going to be the end of our struggle, for the reasons outlined above and more, it is important that Alliance for Choice is involved in discussions around how this scheme is developed to best suit people from Northern Ireland who urgently need abortion care. It also must be remembered that while health is a devolved matter, Human Rights are not. In light of that, we hope to attend the Labour Party Conference in Brighton this September to ensure our voice is heard, and to highlight the urgent need for abortion law reform in Northern Ireland. As we are a completely grassroots campaigning organisation run by volunteers, we have set up a Localgiving appeal to raise money to cover the costs of this lobbying trip. We would welcome any donations at https://localgiving.org/appeal/lobbylabourpartyconference/