NORTHERN IRELAND – The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission is taking legal action against the government

The Northern Ireland (NI) Human Rights Commission is taking legal action against the government over its failure to provide abortion access, the group announced on 18 January, highlighting the continuing struggle for safe abortions more than a year after the procedure was legalised  there. They cite deep concerns about a lack of abortion services, which has left a health care void for many women and girls.

The only good news is that 719 women managed to have an abortion in Northern Ireland in the past year (compared to 8 the previous year), because at least in some parts of the country they are/were providing early abortion services. But many women are still having to travel outside the country. The Commission has produced a damning fact sheet outlining the extent of the failure involved.

The Executive Formation Act (NI) 2019 required the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to implement in full the recommendations of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women’s inquiry into abortion in Northern Ireland, which held that the (then) law created grave and serious violations of human rights.

Since 31 March 2020, the Abortion (NI)(No.2) Regulations 2020 legalised terminations in NI under any circumstances by a registered doctor, nurse or midwife up to 12 weeks, and where there is a risk to physical or mental health in the opinion of two registered medical professionals up to 24 weeks, and with no time limits to save the life or to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of a pregnant woman, or in cases of severe fetal impairment or fatal fetal abnormality.

Yet to date, the Department of Health has not commissioned or funded termination services for the purposes of implementing these regulations across Northern Ireland. The Department of Health has failed to issue any guidance to health and social care trusts on the provision of abortion services.

Health and social care trusts are offering termination within existing services and only where resources allow. This was done as a short term measure by transferring staff from other sexual and reproductive services, which were held in abeyance or reduced as a result of Covid restrictions.

In August 2020, the five health and social care trusts produced an application seeking funding to meet the new legislative requirements for abortion services but this was not considered by the Health and Social Care Board.

From 5 October 2020 the Northern Health and Social Care Trust had to transfer staff back into other sexual and reproductive health care services and therefore ceased to take any new referrals for termination services and the remaining four trusts are not providing abortions for between 10 and 12 weeks due to lack of resources. The Northern HSCT restored the service on 4 January 2021 having secured a locum resource.

On 5 January 2021 the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust ceased providing a service as the only staff member doing the work went on maternity leave and no replacement has been found.

Other trusts did not have the resources to pick up the work in either of the Trusts.

Termination services for medical reasons up to 24 weeks or without a gestational time limit, in line with the Abortion Regulations, are mainly performed by the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust.

The NI Human Rights Commission decided on 30 November 2020 to initiate legal action against the Secretary of State, NI Executive and Department of Health for Northern Ireland for the failure to commission and fund abortion services in Northern Ireland. They believe these failures breach the European Convention on Human Rights because there is an existing statutory requirement that the CEDAW recommendations are implemented.

SOURCE: Fact Sheet: Human Rights Commission Legal Action on Lack of Abortion Services in NI, 11 January 2021