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UK government may push to legislate again on abortion in N Ireland

London Credit Karim von Orelli via Flickr CC BY NC 20 CNA London. / Karim von Orelli via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

The British government may push to legislate further on the provision of abortion in Northern Ireland, as it holds that the region’s devolved government has not fully implemented regulations imposed by Westminster.

“We remain disappointed that the Department of Health and Northern Ireland executive have failed to commission full abortion services, following the change to the law last March,” a British government spokesperson said, according to the Press Association.

“We are continuing to monitor the situation closely, including considering further legislative action at Westminster, given the nature of the legal duties on the secretary of state for Northern Ireland in this context.”

Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, but abortion law is considered a devolved issue to be under the control of the Northern Ireland Assembly. However, due to the suspension of the  regional government, the British parliament in October 2019 decriminalized abortion in Northern Ireland and obliged the UK government to create legal access to abortion in the region.

The regulations from Westminster, which came into force March 31, 2020, allow elective abortions up to 12 weeks of pregnancy; abortions up to 24 weeks in cases of risk to the mother's physical or mental health; and abortion without time limit in cases of severe fetal impairment or fatal fetal abnormality.

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Abortions may be performed at General Practitioners premises, and Health and Social Care clinics and hospitals. Medical abortions are permitted up to 10 weeks, and the first medication, mifepristone, must be taken at a clinic.

The Guardian reported a source in the British government as saying the Northern Ireland Executive “has not commissioned abortion services consistent with the regulations originally set out by the UK government nearly a year ago.”

Between March 31 and Oct. 14, 719 abortions were procured in Northern Ireland.

According to the Press Association, medical abortions have been arranged at individual health trusts, but the Department of Health has not commissioned abortion provision across the region.

Brandon Lewis, the UK Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, is “reportedly prompted by concerns many women are still travelling to Great Britain” to procure abortion, the Press Association wrote.

Northern Irish women have been able to procure free National Health Service abortions in England, Scotland, and Wales since November 2017.

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The Guardian reported that “more than 100 women have still sought abortions in England from Northern Ireland.”

Throughout 2019, 1,014 Northern Ireland women are known to have traveled to England or Wales for an abortion, and fewer than 10 traveled to Scotland for an abortion, according to the U.K. Department of Social Care and Scotland’s Information Services.

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission has filed a judicial review in the region’s High Court over what it maintains is a lack of commission and funding for abortion. The human rights group cites Lewis, the Northern Ireland Executive, and the Northern Ireland Department of Health in its complaint.

Lewis seeks to have the British parliament allow him to direct the Northern Ireland health department to commission more widespread abortion provision.

The health department holds that it needs the agreement of the regional government in order to act.

Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster, who is also leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, and Jeffrey Donaldson, the party’s leader in Westminster, met with Lewis about his plans March 18.

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Donaldson recalled that “abortion is a devolved matter,” adding that “any move by an NIO minister to legislate over the head of the Northern Ireland Executive would raise serious questions about when and in what areas the government can make interventions in a devolved administration. The DUP would warn the Northern Ireland Office against legislating on a matter which is wholly devolved and we will vigorously oppose such steps.”

The Northern Ireland Assembly is a power-sharing legislature dominated by the DUP and Sinn Féin.

The Irish nationalist party has said it will call on the health department to make full provision for abortion.

The Severe Fetal Impairment Abortion (Amendment) Bill, introduced by a DUP Member of the Legislative Assembly, passed its second reading in the Assembly March 15, by a vote of 48 to 12. The bill would remove severe fetal impairment as a ground for abortion.

Sinn Féin MLAs abstained from the vote, while MLAs from the Social Democrat and Labour Party, the Ulster Unionist Party, and the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland were allowed a conscience vote.

Disability rights campaigners -- including the group Don't Screen Us Out and Heidi Crowter, an Irish woman with Down syndrome -- have welcomed the bill, calling the current law “downright discrimination” toward persons with disabilities.

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Before March 31, 2020, abortion was legally permitted in Northern Ireland only if the mother's life was at risk or if there was risk of long term or permanent, serious damage to her mental or physical health.

Northern Ireland rejected the Abortion Act 1967, which legalized abortion in England, Wales, and Scotland; and bills to legalize abortion in cases of fatal fetal abnormality, rape, or incest failed in the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2016.

In June 2020 the British Minister of State for Northern Ireland, Lewis’ deputy, said that while abortion regulation is a devolved issue, any local changes to Northern Ireland's abortion law would have to comply with human rights conventions.

The Northern Ireland Assembly had shortly before passed a non-binding motion rejecting the imposition of the abortion regulations by the Westminster parliament.

The amendment to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 obliging the government to provide for legal abortion in Northern Ireland was introduced by Stella Creasy, a Labour MP who represents a London constituency.

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