Northern Ireland news

Landmark move to allow Northern Ireland women access to abortion services in Republic confirmed

The Republic's health minister Simon Harris has confirmed women in the north will be able to access abortion services in the south. He made his comments during the leaders debate at Féile an Phobail on Tuesday evening. Picture by Hugh Russell.
Seanín Graham

WOMEN from Northern Ireland will be able to access abortion services in the Republic, the Irish health minister has confirmed.

Minister Simon Harris said while he respects the law in the north he also had concerns for women facing crisis pregnancies north of the border.

Speaking at a Féile event in west Belfast on Tuesday evening, Mr Harris said he hoped the issue could be addressed by the north's politicians "in the near future".

"In the meantime, I intend to ensure women from Northern Ireland can access such services in the Republic, just like they can access other health services here," he added.

The new legislation is due to be introduced in the Republic in the autumn, and will allow women access to an abortion within the first 12 weeks of their pregnancy from January 1, 2019.

Abortion is only legal in Northern Ireland in cases where the woman's life is at risk or there is a permanent or serious risk to her mental or physical health.

Almost 1,000 women from the north travelled to England and Wales for abortions last year. There has also been a reported increase in the number of women taking illegal abortion drugs, though the figures are unknown.

Read more: Confusion around how women from Northern Ireland will access abortions in the Republic

Following the Republic's referendum to liberalise its abortion legislation in May, pressure has intensified to amend the north's restrictive laws.

Last month more than 170 politicians - including Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs as well as Stormont MLAs and Irish politicians - wrote a letter calling on the British government to urgently implement reforms, saying it was an issue of protecting women's human rights and honouring the Good Friday Agreement.

Pro-choice campaigners welcome Simon Harris abortion commitment

Pro-choice campaigners last night welcomed the commitment by Mr Harris but anti-abortion groups said they were "outraged" by the move.

Grainne Teggart, campaigns manager for Amnesty International, said she was encouraged but added it was "no substitute" for "free, safe and legal services" at home.

"We call on Theresa May's government to bring an end to the harm being caused by our near total ban on abortion by decriminalising abortion and putting a human rights compliant framework for access in place," she said.

"It is hypocritical, degrading and insulting to women to force them to travel for healthcare. We are not second class citizens, we will not accept this inequity."

Pro-life campaign group critical of Dublin government

But Bernie Smyth of Precious Life said she was opposed to any extension of the service.

"Once again we have a pro-abortion politician attacking Northern Ireland's democratic process. It is totally outrageous and demonstrates a shocking level of utter contempt for democracy," she said.

She added that "all genuine medical treatment" is already provided for pregnant women in the north and that the Assembly has voted against "any change to our pro-life laws".

"The Republic's government has no jurisdiction in Northern Ireland. No other government should have the right to dictate our laws as abortion is a devolved issue. A recent ruling by the UK Supreme Court also emphasised that abortion is a devolved issue for our Assembly."

Meanwhile, the pro-abortion group Alliance for Choice said that while it was "encouraged" by the support of the Republic's government, it was not a solution.

"Pregnant women who travel for abortion care face practical and financial barriers which may be lessened by travelling to Dublin rather than Liverpool. However, they still exist and the details for accessing healthcare outside of our usual jurisdiction will require a great deal of co-operation and diplomacy from our representatives in Stormont," a spokeswoman for the group said.

"The commitment from the Irish health minister to provide another option for those who are able to travel for services displays continued willingness to provide support, but alas many will still be unable to travel and will be forced to continue a pregnancy against their will.

"In addition to legal and practical barriers, pregnant people in Northern Ireland have faced criminal sanctions and police interference for accessing abortion care. The people of Northern Ireland deserve free, safe and legal abortion within our own jurisdiction, with local care and support."

Read more: Confusion around how women from Northern Ireland will access abortions in the Republic

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