Northern Ireland women not allowed free NHS abortions, court rules

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Anna Brech
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In yet another blow to the pro-choice movement, women in Northern Ireland have been refused the right to receive free abortions on the NHS.

The UK's highest court has rejected an appeal made in a landmark case involving a 15-year-old girl who travelled to England with her mother for a termination at a private clinic in 2012.

The decision comes as Theresa May’s government enters a power agreement with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), an organisation fiercely opposed to abortion.

The unnamed pair at the centre of the case had to pay £900 for a termination, despite the fact that abortions are usually available free of charge on the NHS.

Their plight is shared by thousands of women facing unwanted pregnancies in Ireland every year. Britain’s 1967 Abortion Act permitting legal terminations does not apply to Northern Ireland, where draconian laws mean abortion is not permitted even in instances of fatal foetal abnormalities, rape and incest. 

The five Supreme Court judges who ruled on this latest case were “sharply divided” on the issue.

In the judgement seen here, Lady Hale and Lord Kerr ruled that “the policy [of not allowing abortions on the NHS] is incompatible with the Convention rights of women from Northern Ireland.”

But Lord Wilson, Lord Reed and Lord Hughes  said allowing Northern Ireland women abortions on the NHS would trigger “a substantial level of health tourism” whereby people with a wide array of “grave medical conditions” could travel here for free treatment.

They argued that such a ruling would also work against the premise of devolved health services in England, Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

They said the court “must acknowledge respect for the ethical ‘pro-life’ convictions which inform the law in relation to abortions in Northern Ireland” even if women facing unwanted pregnancies find themselves in a “deeply unenviable” situation.

The mother and daughter who launched the legal challenge – known only as “A and B” – have vowed to continue their fight.

“We are really encouraged that two of the judges found in our favour and all of the judges were sympathetic to A’s situation,” the said in a statement.

“We have come this far and fought hard because the issues are so important for women in Northern Ireland.

“For this reason, we will do all that we can to take the fight further. We have instructed our legal team to file an application with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, to protect the human rights of the many other women who make the lonely journey to England every week because they are denied access to basic healthcare services in their own country.”

Images: iStock and Rex


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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.