The UK government just took an important step in announcing – following a campaign and under pressure from parliament – that the National Health Service (NHS) will carry out abortions at no cost to pregnant women and girls from Northern Ireland who travel to England for the procedure. The decision follows a recent UK Supreme Court judgment that, under devolved health services, women living in Northern Ireland aren’t entitled to free abortions on the NHS in England.
But while the government announcement is positive, it is also a partial and unsatisfactory solution to a problem that should not exist. Women and girls should be able to access safe abortion in Northern Ireland, and the UK government has failed in its obligations to fulfil this right there for too long.
Abortion has been legal in most of the UK since 1967, but the law explicitly excluded Northern Ireland, where it remains criminalized except when the health or life of the woman is at grave risk – denying thousands of women their reproductive rights.
Cases deemed exceptions are rare indeed. Just 16 women were allowed abortions in Northern Ireland last year, while others are forced to carry to full term pregnancies they may never have intended, do not want, or cannot afford or resort to risky abortions or, alternatively, travel to elsewhere in the UK or Europe at great cost for private procedures. That the individual seeking an abortion is a child victim of rape is no protection either; the mother of a 15-year-old girl pregnant following an abusive relationship is currently fighting prosecution after being charged with procuring an abortion for her daughter.
Today's announcement will not entirely allay concerns about the potential impact on women’s rights arising from the deal between the Conservative minority government and Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The DUP is staunchly anti-choice.
The UK government is obliged to protect the right of women and girls throughout all of the UK to choose whether or not to continue a pregnancy. As a party to the UN treaty on women’s rights, the UK should remove punitive measures for women who undergo abortion. The UN has specifically criticized Northern Ireland’s restrictions on abortion, and it is high time that the UK government insists Northern Ireland decriminalize abortion.