Northern Ireland news

Dramatic overhaul of abortion laws in Westminster and Republic improves access - but has no bearing on Northern Ireland's strict legislation

Labour MP Stella Creasy was instrumental in getting free abortions for Northern Ireland women in England
Seanín Graham

TWO landmark legal rulings in Westminster and the Republic in just over the space of a year have transformed access to abortion services for women in Northern Ireland.

Last June, Labour MP Stella Creasy put forward a proposal to give women from the north access to NHS-funded abortions in England. Travel and accommodation costs were subsequently covered for women on benefits or those on lower incomes, with access to terminations also offered by the Scottish and Welsh governments.

Within a year, the landslide vote to repeal the Republic's Eighth Amendment took place and it has now emerged that northern women will be able to cross the border and access abortion pills legally up until their twelfth week of pregnancy.

Despite the extraordinary changes however, there has been no impact on the north's restrictive laws - making it the only region in Britain and Ireland where abortion is illegal, except in the most extreme circumstances.

If, in the unlikely event, Stormont powersharing was to be restored in the near future, the chances of the north's abortion laws being relaxed are probably as remote as ever - given the DUP's pro-life stance even in cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality.

The DUP's opposition to abortion is also shared by some nationalists, including the SDLP who re-affirmed the party's anti-abortion position at special conference three months ago (where a 'conscience' vote was also passed allowing its members a 'free' vote on abortion-related issues).

Meanwhile, health professionals in the north dealing with women who have illegally accessed abortion pills have also expressed concerns about their fear of criminal prosecution - and being forced to operate a 'don't ask don't tell' policy when faced with such cases.

Breedagh Hughes, who heads up the Royal College of Midwives, last year said: "The law is very unfair...if a woman tells her midwife that she has accessed abortion pills we are legally obliged to inform the police, if we don't midwives risk prosecution instead we don't ask if they had bought pills online so we aren't obliged to report it."

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