State Papers

State Papers: Health board refused to reimburse hospital in Scotland for carrying out abortion

Demonstrators at The March for Choice in Dublin in March this year demanding change to the Republic's strict abortion laws
Dr Éamon Phoenix

THE ban on abortion in Northern Ireland was dramatically highlighted in 1992, this year’s file releases reveal.

The issue emerged in April that year when a Northern Ireland woman had an abortion at a Scottish hospital and her local health board refused to refund the cost of the treatment.

As a result the Scottish Health Management Executive raised the issue with the Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS) at Stormont.

In a note on the file dated March 30, 1992 a Stormont official explained that with the introduction of contracting for Health and Social Services, Northern Ireland health boards needed to reimburse hospitals in Britain which had provided treatment for residents travelling from Northern Ireland.

This particular case, he informed colleagues, concerned a local woman who had had an abortion in Scotland.

Later, when her local Eastern Health Board was asked to refund the cost of the treatment, it refused on two grounds: firstly, that prior authorisation had not been obtained and secondly, that "the operation was illegal".

In the official's view, the allegation of illegality needed to be clarified as it had implications for Northern Ireland, given the "more restrictive legal position on abortion in Northern Ireland".

The official acknowledged that many Northern Ireland women travelled to Britain for abortions.

His concern was that, in light of the Eastern Board’s stance, and the existence of separate legislation in Northern Ireland, women travelling from the north might be prevented in future from obtaining abortions in Britain on the NHS.

He added: "This will raise the question of equality of access for services within the UK and the role of boards here in making judgements about a rather emotive issue."

The official noted that the local exemption from the provisions of the 1967 Abortion Act commanded broad support from politicians and the churches across the north.

Therapeutic terminations could only be carried out in NI with the consent of two doctors and the informed consent of the woman.

However, he noted that 1,855 abortions were carried out in Britain on Northern Ireland women in 1991 alone.

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State Papers

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