Northern Ireland news

Campaigners seeking free abortions for women from north vow to fight on

Each year, at least 1,000 women travel to England for a termination at a private clinic
Cathy Gordon, Press Association

A mother and daughter who want women from Northern Ireland to receive free abortions on the NHS in England have vowed to fight on after a narrow defeat at Britain's highest court.

Following the Supreme Court's decision on Wednesday to reject their case against the Health Secretary by a majority of just three to two, they announced plans to go to the European Court of Human Rights.

The justices said they were "sharply divided" over what the outcome of the case should be with the court's deputy president Lady Hale being one of the two who ruled in favour of the mother and daughter.

The 20-year-old woman at the centre of the appeal was 15 in October 2012 when she and her mother travelled from Northern Ireland to Manchester and were told she had to pay hundreds of pounds for a private termination because she was excluded from free abortion services.

The daughter, who can only be referred to as A, and her mother B, previously suffered defeat at the High Court in London in 2014 and at the Court of Appeal the following year.

After the latest round of their battle, they said in a statement: "We are really encouraged that two of the judges found in our favour and all of the judges were sympathetic to A's situation.

"We have come this far and fought hard because the issues are so important for women in Northern Ireland.

"For this reason, we will do all that we can to take the fight further.

"We have instructed our legal team to file an application with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, to protect the human rights of the many other women who make the lonely journey to England every week because they are denied access to basic healthcare services in their own country."

In Northern Ireland a termination is lawful when its continuation would threaten the woman's life, or when it would probably affect her physical or mental health, but only if the effect would be serious and, in particular, permanent or long-term.

Each year, at least 1,000 women travel to England for a termination at a private clinic, often paying up to £1,000, and sometimes as much as £2,000.

The mother and daughter had sought a declaration that it was unlawful for the Health Secretary to have failed to make provision for A and all other British citizens usually resident in Northern Ireland to undergo a termination under the NHS in England free of charge.

He conceded he had power to make such provision, the question decided by the justices was whether it was "unlawful for him to have decided not to exercise it".

During the Supreme Court proceedings last year it was argued on behalf of the British government that it was not irrational for the provision of non-emergency healthcare to be divided between the different countries of the UK according to the place of residence of the patient.

The majority concluded the British health secretary was entitled to reach the decision he did.

Announcing the decision, Lord Wilson said it was not for the court to "address the ethical considerations which underlie the difference" in the law regarding abortion in Northern Ireland and England.

He added: "But the fact is that the law in Northern Ireland puts most women in unwanted pregnancy there in a deeply unenviable position."

Angela Jackman, a partner at law firm Simpson Millar, who has represented A and B throughout the legal process, said she was "heartened" that Lady Hale and Lord Kerr "would have allowed the appeal in full".

It provided A and B "with a firm basis for taking their case forward to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR)".

She said: "The time is ripe to seek further redress for the women of Northern Ireland who have such limited reproductive rights."

Rowan Smith, of law firm Leigh Day's human rights team, who represented a number of groups - Alliance For Choice, British Pregnancy Advisory Service, Birthrights, Family Planning Association and Abortion Support Network - said the judgment was a "major setback for women's rights in the UK and must be appealed to Strasbourg without delay".

He said: "Women from Northern Ireland, who are UK citizens, must have access to the pregnancy services they need.

"The women in Northern Ireland who cannot afford to pay privately for termination services in England, what are they supposed to do? This major gap in our nation's health services must be rectified as a matter of priority.

"We are talking about fundamental rights here. It is regressive for the Secretary of State for Health to be defending his policy to refuse them access to NHS services in England.

"Our clients hope the European Court will now step in and rectify this appalling situation."

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