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  • Writer's pictureJack McClelland

Pass the Parcel Politics – High Court Challenge on Northern Ireland Abortion Delays

In 2019 abortion in Northern Ireland was liberalised by Westminster following the collapse of Stormont in 2017. Due to the failure of both the DUP and Sinn Féin to reach any sort of agreement and therefore refuse to take their position as ministers in the devolved Government, the task of holding down the fort was left to Civil Servants, whose powers are limited.

Due to their restricted powers they were unable to make significant decisions without stepping outside their means, leading to many important issues being stalled including women’s access to healthcare.

Following the introduction of legislation that sought to decriminalise abortion in Northern Ireland in 2019, there is still an absence of fully funded services commissioned by the department on a region-wide basis.

This has led to today’s proceedings in which the NI Human Rights Commission is taking action against the Northern Ireland Executive, the Department of Health and Northern Ireland’s Secretary of State Brandon Lewis. The basis of this challenge is found in the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Commission have argued that the delay from Stormont in setting up a region-wide service for women in Northern Ireland, breach Article 8 of the ECHR, the right to private and family life, which includes the right of a woman to personal autonomy.

In 2019, MPs voted in favour of legislation that placed a duty on the Executive to implement recommendations from UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. CEDAW found that women’s rights where in fact being breached by the limited access to abortion services in Northern Ireland.

Following the vote in 2019, laws permitting termination in any circumstances within the first 12 weeks and beyond for other circumstances, came into force in March 2020. However, with the delay from Stormont in commissioning full services based on an obligation placed on them by Westminster, many health trusts have been acting on an ad hoc basis.

These interim services are in complete defiance of the laws passed, as they are only providing services for up to 10 weeks. This means that women seeking medical treatment in Northern Ireland in 2021 are still required to travel by plane or boat to seek assistance in England.

This exact scenario has placed a woman at the centre of the case. In a statement which is anonymous the woman noted that during the global pandemic in which we where told not to travel; she was provided with an ultimatum. Due to the last-minute suspension of treatment in her area and the absence of referrals to anywhere else in Northern Ireland, she was told to travel to England in order to access treatment.

Being placed in a position where she would have to explain her request for time off to her employer at short notice and provide an explanation for travelling during a global pandemic, the woman did not feel comfortable or able to do this. Instead, she had to pay for medication through Women on the Web and hope that no complications came as a result of this.

It is May 2021. In 2019 Abortion was legalised in Northern Ireland and yet women and girls are still being asked to travel to England to access services or purchase unregulated pills on the internet. Elected Governments and democracy are based on those in power being held accountable for their actions or inactions. The ‘pass the parcel’ stunt between the Secretary of State, NI Executive and the Department of Health, must not restrict those seeking medical treatment from doing so.

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