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Abortion activists react to surprise move over free English NHS access for Northern Ireland women

Labour MP Stella Creasy speaking yesterday in the British parliament
Brendan Hughes

ABORTION activists on opposing sides of the argument have reacted to the British government announcing it will give Northern Ireland women free access to NHS abortions in England.

Anti-abortion campaigners branded the move "outrageous", while those campaigning for abortion law reforms in the north hailed it as a "momentous breakthrough".

Prime minister Theresa May's minority government made the announcement yesterday in a concession to see off a potential House of Commons defeat.

Labour MP Stella Creasy had tabled an amendment to the Queen's Speech calling for "adequate funding" to ensure free access to abortions in England for women arriving from Northern Ireland.

But she withdrew her proposal after the British government confirmed it intends to fund such access.

Northern Ireland's abortion laws are much stricter than in Britain.

Women in Northern Ireland seeking an abortion can travel to England for private treatment, but had not been allowed them free on the NHS.

Anti-abortion campaigner Bernie Smyth, director of Precious Life, said the change is an "outrageous attack on democracy".

"We await to hear the DUP MPs voice their outrage at this decision. Even Sinn Féin MPs, who claim they are opposed to Westminster extending the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland, should be voicing their outrage," she said.

Breedagh Hughes, the Royal College of Midwives director for Northern Ireland, welcomed the announcement as a "significant step forward".

"We already know that women in Northern Ireland are purchasing abortion pills illegally online as many cannot afford to travel to the UK to receive the medical treatment they need," she said.

"In the absence of a functioning legislative assembly in Northern Ireland, this is a very welcome intervention from the Westminster government which acknowledges the difficulties for women from Northern Ireland in accessing safe, legal abortions."

Chancellor Philip Hammond was required to confirm the government's intention to fund abortions in England for women arriving from Northern Ireland, amid growing pressure from MPs of all parties.

Women and equalities minister Justine Greening also sent a letter confirming the move.

She said it would be funded through the Government Equalities Office, adding: "This will mean no English health service user is disadvantaged as a result of this change."

Mrs May's reliance on DUP support to command a majority in the Commons brought the issue of abortion charges in England for women from Northern Ireland to the fore.

The DUP has previously said it wants no extension to Northern Ireland's restrictions on terminations.

As it stands, fatal-foetal abnormalities, rape and incest are not grounds for an abortion.

When Ms Creasy raised the issue on Wednesday, DUP North Antrim MP Ian Paisley told the Commons: "This is not a matter for Belfast, it is a matter for NHS England".

Last night a DUP spokesman said: "Our MPs were opposed to the Stella Creasy amendment.

"Requesting payment from Northern Ireland women, whilst they access termination services, was always a matter for NHS England. Northern Ireland was not involved in the decision to request payment."

He added: "Besides the DUP, it should be noted that Sinn Fein, the UUP and Labour's sister party the SDLP have opposed the extension of the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland."

John Smeaton, chief executive of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, called it a "most shocking development".

"This is a black day for unborn children, for mothers and for democracy," he said.

Alliance South Belfast MLA Paula Bradshaw welcomed the move, but was keen to see the details of the plans.

"It's clear the government has acted before forced to do so through an amendment to the Queen's speech, signalling the momentous breakthrough this is for women in Northern Ireland," she said.

People Before Profit's Fiona Ferguson said the amendment was a "significant advance" but they "will continue to fight to end this discrimination".

Of the main Stormont parties, no statements were issued on the matter last night by Sinn Féin, the SDLP or the UUP.

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