To: Northern Ireland Minister for Health, Robin Swann
The North is Now! Commission Abortion Care for Northern Ireland



Why the petition is needed: a history

The Northern Ireland (NI) Secretary of State, who is appointed by the UK Prime Minister, was recently reported to be concerned that Northern Irish women are still travelling to Britain for abortions. This is certainly true, though it is not new news. His own office was tweeting that women from NI can still avail of free NHS abortions in England just a few months ago.

He may have been reminded when one of the governing NI political parties tabled a bill in March 2021 that abortions for non-fatal fetal anomalies would no longer be permitted after 24 weeks. The bill passed its second reading, as we have reported three times already this year, in the context of the delay in commissioning abortion services in the region, although provision of abortion services is legally required. He might also have noted that the NI Human Rights Commission had launched legal action against the Secretary of State, the Executive of the NI Assembly and the Department of Health over that same failure to commission abortion services.

This situation has been developing since the NI government failed to implement the law on abortion called for by the High Court and by the report of the CEDAW Inquiry into reproductive rights in NI. With the momentum from the huge vote to legalise abortion in the Republic’s Repeal referendum, Labour MP Stella Creasy succeeded in forcing the UK Parliament to act in defence of women’s rights in NI. This was aided by the fact the NI Assembly had not met for almost three years due to political infighting. The Irish News has just published a timeline of what has been happening since the year 2000. An edited version is below, the main additions being pro-choice activity:

– June 2000 – Members of NI Assembly vote to oppose extension of British 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland.

– October 2008 – Women from Derry and Belfast travelled to Westminster to lobby to have the 1967 Act extended while in towns in NI, 40 women gathered the Saturday before to represent the 40 women a week who travelled for abortion.

– October 2012 – Protest for and against greets opening of a Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast offering abortions for first time in the North.

– March 2013 – An Open Letter is published where over 100 women admit to having used abortion pills or to helped someone to procure pills, both imprisonable offences. The letter was in response to Bill introduced to the Assembly mandating that abortions in the region could take place only in NHS premises (to close MSI). The Bill was withdrawn when the reality of self-managed abortions happening daily was acknowledged.

– April 2013 – The Attorney General sends a circular to all obstetricians and gynaecologists in NI reminding them that carrying out an illegal abortion carries a sentence of life imprisonment and that abortion for reasons of fetal anomaly is illegal.

– October 2013 – Sarah Ewart speaks publicly about travelling to England for an abortion due to diagnosis of fatal fetal anomaly.

– June 2015 – A mother in Belfast is charged with obtaining abortion pills for her pregnant 15-year-old daughter. Prochoice activists publish a second Open Letter in solidarity with her – this time signed by over 200, mainly women, admitting to having broken the law on abortion

– April 2015 – NI Justice Minister David Ford announces plans for limited changes to abortion legislation that will require Assembly support.

– November 2015 – Following a challenge by the NI Human Rights Commission, the High Court rules that North’s abortion legislation breaches human rights law.

– February 2016 – Members of NI Assembly again oppose legalisation of abortion even in cases of fatal fetal abnormality and rape or incest.

– May 2016 – Three members of Alliance for Choice in Derry hand themselves in to police with evidence that they had procured abortion pills and provided them to others.

– January 2017 – NI governing institutions collapse due to profound political disagreements.

– February 2018 – CEDAW says British government has breached women’s rights by failing to provide access to abortion services in NI.

– May 2018 – Over two-thirds of people in the Republic of Ireland vote to Repeal the 8th (anti-abortion) Amendment to the Constitution and legalise abortion across most of the island of Ireland.

– July 2019 – While NI governing institutions are not functioning, UK Parliament in London votes overwhelmingly to liberalise NI’s abortion laws if governance not restored. This takes place in October. The NI Assembly begins meeting again only after abortion law was passed in London.

– March 2020 – British government sets out legal framework for abortion services, with abortion available at the woman’s request until 12th week of pregnancy and thereafter, to 24th week if continuing the pregnancy is a greater risk to the woman’s physical or mental health than terminating it; abortion legal at any stage for reasons of severe fetal anomaly.

– April 2020 – Doctors with a conscientious commitment to provide introduce limited access to Early Medical Abortion (EMA) up to 10 weeks but without funding or resources. Health Minister Robin Swann says commissioning of services is a matter for the whole Executive.

– January 2021 – NI Human Rights Commission launches legal action against Secretary of State, the NI Assembly executive and the Department of Health over delay in commissioning abortion services.

– March 2021 – Further “legislative action” on abortion “under review” in Northern Ireland. British government plans to table new powers forcing the NI Assembly to roll-out abortion services. However, while all NI health trusts have temporary early medical abortion services, full services have not yet been commissioned by the Department of Health so anyone needing an abortion after ten weeks has to travel to England – during a global pandemic! The NI Minister for Health Robin Swann said previously the issue is controversial and therefore he cannot act alone and requires agreement by the Executive.

– NI Secretary of State Lewis intends to lay new regulations in UK Parliament to allow him to direct Mr Swann’s department to commission the services.

SOURCES: The Irish News, 20 March 2021 ; Irish Times, 18 March 2021 ; Goretti Horgan, NI Alliance for Choice, 7 April 2021