ABORTION services in one of Northern Ireland's biggest health trusts will stop this Monday due to limited resources.
In a statement to The Irish News, the Northern health trust confirmed access to its Early Medical Abortion (EMA) provision will cease, six months after it was first introduced.
Women seeking NHS terminations in the area - which takes in Antrim, Cookstown, Magherafelt, Ballymena and Coleraine - will be "redirected" to other health trusts.
The service was green-lighted by the Department of Health during the first surge of the pandemic so that women seeking early abortions did not have to travel to England.
However, it was never formally commissioned by the department and was instead delivered through sexual health services across trusts.
The Irish News also learned last night that a total of 664 early abortions have been carried out in the north since March 31, when a new legal framework came into effect and gave women lawful access to terminations.
Sources say doctors and senior management in the Northern trust are keen to have the service reintroduced or properly commissioned – a move that requires ministerial sign-off.
A trust spokewoman confirmed that they - along with their counterparts - will be "discussing the current arrangements with the Department of Health in the coming days".
She said: "Uncommissioned Early Medical Abortion (EMA) pathways were put in place by Trusts from April 2020 to facilitate women within Northern Ireland. This was made possible due to the downturn of services in other areas.
“…There will be no change to current provision ahead of this regional discussion (between trusts and the department), with the exception of the Northern Trust which does not currently have the resource to continue to provide the service.
“In the short term, and with effect from Monday 5 October 2020, Informing Choices NI will redirect women from the Northern Trust area to other Trusts.”
The collapse of the northern EMA service last night sparked an outcry, with campaigners pointing to record high coronavirus infections and women being forced to travel for terminations at a time of severe travel restrictions.
Alliance MP Stephen Farry tweeted the closure was "very troubling" and impacted on "vulnerable women".
Pro-choice activist Goretti Horgan, who is a Social Policy lecturer at Ulster University and director of Ark’s policy unit, said she was aware the new service had led to a significant drop in women accessing abortion pills online.
She added: "It is already the case that women have to travel to England for abortion when they're over 10 weeks pregnant. Now they're also expected to travel across the north when they're under ten weeks, it's putting them and the public in danger at a time of rising Covid infection rates.
"It goes against every public message that we've had. There's also the question of whether other health trusts can actually provide for the women affected."
But Dawn McAvoy of pro-life group, Both Lives Matters said they remain opposed to the "imposition of the new abortion regime from Westminster".
"We reject the assumption that it's best care for women or that it can ever be framed as healthcare as it involves the end of one life," she said
"The trust has said women seeking abortions will be redirected. However, we would hope that they and any other health trust would also direct any woman facing a crisis pregnancy to independent counselling so that they can be given information and time to consider their options."
Amnesty International slated the Department and called on health minister Robin Swann to urgently commission the service.
"The fact that the Northern Trust have had to stop this service is a direct consequence of the sheer neglect and disastrous failings of the Department of Health," Amnesty's Grainne Teggart said.
“…This development does not change the fact that abortion is legal. Women must not be refused this service.”
The Irish News asked the department to clarify health minister’s Robin Swann’s position on and future commissioning of services.
A spokesman said it has “publicly stated” that its legal advice says while the department is “not required to commission the relevant services", the law now allows registered medical professionals to carry out abortions.
"The regulations require such terminations to be carried out on Health and Social Care premises. This advice was communicated to Trusts in April," he added.
"Decisions remain to be taken on the commissioning of abortion services in NI’s health service. Commissioning is a significant process that will require a public consultation. It will clearly be matter for the Executive and Assembly as well as the Department.”
Early medical abortions across the trusts have been facilitated through the sexual health charity, Informing Choices Northern Ireland (ICNI), which provides a helpline that acts as a Central Access Point.
Ruairi Rowan, director of advocacy and policy at ICNI, said they had provided support to women and girls with a crisis pregnancy for six months.
He added: Whilst women living in the Northern Trust areas will be able to access the healthcare in different trust areas, this is not a sustainable solution. The Department of Health needs to act quickly to ensure all trusts are resourced and able to provide abortion services, before they collapse everywhere.”
Northern Ireland’s strict abortion laws were decriminalised last October following an historic vote by Westminster MPs in the absence of Stormont.