Free NHS abortions offered to Northern Irish women in Scotland and Wales

Decisions come as DUP politician says 'rights of unborn child trump any political agreement'

Katie Forster
Health Correspondent
Wednesday 05 July 2017 13:06 BST
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Pro-choice supporters protest outside the Public Prosecution Office in Belfast, Northern Ireland
Pro-choice supporters protest outside the Public Prosecution Office in Belfast, Northern Ireland (Getty)

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Women from Northern Ireland will be able to access free abortions on the NHS in Wales and Scotland as well as England, it has been announced.

Details of the new policy are to be “set out shortly”, the Scottish government said the day after Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones also confirmed the decision.

Abortion is illegal in Northern Ireland in all but exceptional circumstances, even in cases of rape and incest.

Many hundreds of women are thought to travel across the Irish Sea each year to undergo the procedure in Great Britain – where they are presented with a bill from the health service.

Last Thursday the UK Government backed funding for women from Northern Ireland to access free abortions in England, a dramatic change in policy provoked by an amendment to the Queen’s Speech tabled by Labour MP Stella Creasy.

The U-turn came just weeks after the Supreme Court narrowly rejected an appeal from a mother and daughter, who was 15 when she travelled from Northern Ireland to Manchester for an abortion, for which she was reportedly charged around £900.

The judges ruled women in Northern Ireland were not entitled to receive free abortions in the NHS in England, citing “respect to the democratic decision of the people of Northern Ireland”.

Ms Creasy dropped her amendment, expected to be backed by some Tory backbenchers, after chancellor Philip Hammond announced the policy change.

A Holyrood spokesperson said the Scottish government “believes that a woman from Northern Ireland, in Scotland, should be able to access an abortion for free on the same basis as women in Scotland and we will set out shortly how that can be achieved.“

”The Scottish Government's view is that abortion should be part of standard healthcare for all women, and available free from stigma,” they said.

Hammond: Government will fund abortions in England for Northern Ireland women

Scotland was granted new devolved powers over abortion as part of the 2016 Scotland Act. At the time, Nicola Sturgeon said she would look into giving Northern Ireland women access to NHS abortions in Scotland without prohibitive costs.

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (Bpas), Britain’s largest provider of abortion services, said on Monday it had removed all consultation and treatment fees for women living in Northern Ireland after the Government’s decision.

“As the details of the new government scheme have yet to be put forward, Bpas is concerned that women may delay treatment as they wait for the commitment to be actioned,” they said, adding that women who have been treated by Bpas since Friday will have their fees refunded.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which has signed a formal agreement with the Conservatives to prop up Theresa May's minority government, has long opposed abortion.

One of the Northern Irish party's MPs, Ian Paisley Jr, said the DUP will not compromise on its anti-abortion views as part of the deal.

Mr Paisley said "the rights of the unborn child trump any political agreement that has been put in place" as he issued a warning to any MPs who try to raise the issue in the House of Commons.

Marie Stopes UK, another major abortion provider, said there has been no change to their fees for Northern Irish women yet, but said it was “vital” the Government implement the change as soon as possible.

“We are already in discussion with government over how to implement this change and ensure that women from Northern Ireland can start accessing abortion services in England, free at the point of care,” said Sally bassett, the organisation’s acting managing director.

“Now that this decision has been made, it is vital that the change is implemented as soon as possible, so that women seeking abortion are clear on their options.

“We strongly believe that Northern Irish women are entitled to the same NHS services as any other UK taxpayer. Ideally these services would be provided in Northern Ireland itself, but until that happens, this is an important step forward.”

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