Today, over 50 cross-party policymakers have signed a letter supported by sexual health charity FPA, BPAS, the Royal College of Midwives and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, calling on the Secretary of State for Health to remove the ban on NHS-funded abortion for women travelling from Northern Ireland.
This follows a narrowly-defeated appeal at the Supreme Court earlier this month challenging the existing policy. However, the court did make it clear that the Secretary of State holds the power to end the current discriminatory two-tier system, which denies services to women from Northern Ireland that are freely available to women living in the rest of the UK.
That’s why over 50 Members of Parliament (MPs), Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) and peers have called for change. While continuing the campaign for change within Northern Ireland, these politicians are calling on Jeremy Hunt MP to use his unique ability to reduce the financial strain on women who are prevented from accessing abortion services at home.
Signatory Stella Creasy, Labour MP for Walthamstow, said:
“It's clear parliamentarians from across the house and clinicians are deeply concerned that what happens to UK taxpayers in English hospitals appears to be being dictated by Stormont. With voices on all sides backing the rights of Northern Irish women to be able to have an abortion in England on the NHS, the Government now needs to come clean on just who is stopping them from ensuring these women can use these vital healthcare services in England and Wales and whether the question of abortion access has been discussed as part of their agreement with the DUP.”
Signatory Diana Johnson, Labour MP for Hull North, said:
“As the Supreme Court judgement on 14th June made clear, it is absolutely wrong to suggest that the Northern Irish assembly has any role in deciding how Northern Irish women should access abortion services in England. The UK Government, and the UK Government alone, bears the responsibility for denying them these services.
“The Health Secretary therefore has an overwhelming moral responsibility to change his policy. Neither he, nor any Government Minister, can any longer hide behind the pretence that his policy has anything to do with devolution.
“Providing equal health treatment in England would cost us hardly anything, but it will mean everything to a small and vulnerable group of Northern Irish women, who come to England in desperation. We can no longer turn our backs to such a grave and unfair inequity.”
Signatory Clare Bailey, Green Party MLA for South Belfast, said:
“The Secretary of State for Health speaks of “respect” for democratic decisions when it comes to granting access to abortion for women in Northern Ireland. Respect should mean equality for women in Northern Ireland and access to free, safe and legal health services that they part fund as UK taxpayers.
“The Family Planning Association and British Pregnancy Advisory Service have developed a fully costed plan which would provide a way for women to access NHS abortion services in England. This plan gives women the power to make choices about their reproductive healthcare without undermining the democratic decision-making process in Northern Ireland.
“I echo the calls for Jeremy Hunt to reduce the significant financial burden, the stigma and cruelty inflicted on local women when they are forced to travel to access abortion services.
“For too long the UK government have been complicit in the continued denial of minimum human rights standards to women in Northern Ireland. The failure to allow women access to abortion on the NHS compounds their failure to adhere to international human rights norms.”
Laura Russell, Policy Manager for the sexual health charity FPA, said:
“While the UK Government has rightly spent £3 million over four years on supporting reproductive rights around the world, it would have cost just £350,500 to fund abortions for all women who travelled to England and Wales from Northern Ireland in 2016. The Secretary of State himself has argued that this is not an issue of cost, but one of “respect” to the democratic process in Northern Ireland.
“While continuing to campaign for change within Northern Ireland itself, it is clear that politicians across party boundaries, in Great Britain and Northern Ireland agree that his policy should be changed, to show and deliver a health service with compassion, respect and dignity for all UK citizens.
“It’s great to see cross-party support for change for women in Northern Ireland seeking an abortion, who have to travel far from their home, pay up to thousands of pounds or risk prosecution buying medical abortion pills online. We see the devastating effect this has every day through our pregnancy choices counselling service in Northern Ireland, which supports women facing unplanned or crisis pregnancies.
“We hope that the Secretary of State listens and rectifies a situation that is unfair and causes the greatest harm to those without the means to travel.”
Clare Murphy, bpas Director of External Affairs, said:
“It is a travesty that in the 21st century women in Northern Ireland are unable to access abortion care where they live. If they do not have the means to travel to England, women needing to end a pregnancy must order pills online, risking life imprisonment in the process. This is totally unacceptable.
“While we wait for Northern Ireland’s political leaders to do what is right and provide care for women at home, we urge the Secretary of State to use the powers he acknowledges he has to provide funded care for these women, who are UK citizens and taxpayers, and deserve no less.”
Grainne Teggart, Northern Ireland Campaign Manager for Amnesty International, said:
“Northern Ireland’s draconian abortion law is among the most restrictive in Europe and carries the harshest criminal penalties in Europe. That grim distinction should be a wake-up call to politicians. Whilst we continue to campaign for reform of Northern Ireland’s abortion laws, free abortions on the NHS in England would help remedy the situation for women and girls who have to travel and pay privately to access this healthcare. However, this is no substitute for Northern Ireland getting its own house in order and does not diminish the urgent need for the UK Government to prioritise ending the inequality Northern Irish women face on abortion. Although health and justice are devolved matters, ensuring that the human rights of all UK citizens are upheld is a Westminster responsibility.”
Sam Smethers, Chief Executive of the Fawcett Society, said:
"Women from Northern Ireland deserve the same access to free NHS care in England as the rest of us. This isn't about devolution, it's about women's human rights. The government needs to change its course immediately."