Northern Ireland news

Foster and O'Neill clash over prospect of NI telemedicine abortions

Abortion was decriminalised in Northern Ireland last October following legislation passed by Westminster.
Rebecca Black and David Young, PA

Stormont’s leaders have clashed over the prospect of allowing women in Northern Ireland access to home abortions during the coronavirus outbreak.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill called for the introduction of telemedicine services during the crisis, but First Minister Arlene Foster has reiterated her opposition to “abortion on demand”.

While a new legal framework to allow terminations in the region came into effect at the end of last month, the services have not yet been rolled out.

Women seeking terminations in the interim have been advised to travel to Great Britain.

However, restrictions on travel due to coronavirus have placed the arrangement into difficulty.

During the Covid-19 emergency, women in the early stages of pregnancy in England, Scotland and Wales are able to secure abortion medication from a doctor through telemedicine services.

Pro-choice campaigners have called for this provision to be introduced in Northern Ireland as well.

Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill addressed the issue at the daily press conference

Health Minister Robin Swann has responsibility for the issue, but any move to introduce the measure will require the agreement of the wider powersharing executive.

The issue was discussed at a meeting of the Stormont Executive on Monday.

Afterwards, Mrs Foster said she would not give a running commentary on the executive’s deliberations. She said a “full discussion” was required.

“The Health minister will bring papers forward and we will have discussions in relation to those papers,” she said.

“But I don’t think it’s any secret that I don’t believe that abortion on demand should be available in Northern Ireland.

“I think it’s a very retrograde step for our society here in Northern Ireland instead of supporting people who find themselves in crisis pregnancies, we’re not even having any discussion around that and how we can support people in those circumstances, how we can provide perinatal care.”

Ms O’Neill said the service should be available to Northern Ireland women.

“I support telemedicine,” she said.

“What we’re talking about is compassionate healthcare, modern healthcare for women.

“What we’re talking about is responding to women’s need at the time of global crisis – women shouldn’t be left out in terms of supports that are put in place.

“And so the regulations that have went through Westminster, the legislation that’s went through, needs to be implemented here.

“Obviously this is about compassionate healthcare, this is about making sure that we have supports here for women who find themselves in a vulnerable situation.

“So the health minister has an obligation to put in place those regulations and to put in place the mechanisms in order to make sure those supports are there for women as has been legislated for.”

There has been anger among the pro-choice lobby that the Stormont Executive has not yet set up termination services.

Alliance for Choice expressed frustration and claimed Stormont is “blocking” abortion services.

Naomi Connor, Alliance for Choice co-convenor in Belfast, said: “The World Health Organisation notes that abortion is essential healthcare in a pandemic, and yet the Northern Ireland Office and the Department of Health in NI have found it acceptable to do absolutely nothing, except to release videos extolling travel to England for treatment, when the reality of clinic accessibility is limited to an eight-hour each-way freight ferry with no companions and only for those who are not quarantined or self-isolating.”

Earlier Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said travel is currently appropriate for medical needs.

“Travel should only be for essential travel, one of those key points is a medical need or the need to provide medical care and support to other people. So if there is a medical need for someone to travel, that is something that is appropriate within the guidelines,” he told the BBC.

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