The Northern Ireland parliament has been ordered to commission full abortion services before the end of March 2022.
The country’s once strict abortion laws were liberalised in 2019 following legislation passed by Westminster at a time when devolution at Stormont had collapsed.
Individual health trusts are offering services for early medical abortions on an ad-hoc basis but the Department of Health has yet to commission full services due to an ongoing stalemate within the devolved administration.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, these limitations meant many women continued to travel to England to access abortions.
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said he had a ‘moral obligation’ to protect women’s rights
But on Thursday, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis used new powers to direct the Department of Health and others to commission full services.
He said: “I acknowledge and respect the deeply-held views that individuals hold on this issue.
“However, it is the clear will of parliament that the rights of women and girls in Northern Ireland are properly upheld.”
Ulster Unionist Health Minister Robin Swann had insisted he could not centrally commission services without the approval of the wider five-party coalition Executive, saying it was his legal responsibility to refer controversial or significant decisions to the other ministers.
For such a proposal to secure Executive approval – or even get on the agenda for discussion – the two main parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein, must both agree.
But the anti-abortion DUP had been blocking this.
In March, the government intervened, giving Mr Lewis the power to direct the Department of Health to commission the services.
Pro-choice campaigners have long sought access to abortion services. File pic
Mr Lewis said on Thursday: “This ongoing stalemate leaves me no choice but to issue a direction.
“I have a legal and moral obligation to ensure the women and girls in Northern Ireland are afforded their rights and can access the healthcare as set out in the 2020 regulations.”
Mr Lewis also said the services currently being offered by the health trusts needed immediate support, as they were “at risk of collapse”.
Pro-choice campaigners said the move was “long overdue” but anti-abortion activists described it as a “black day”.
Grainne Teggart, Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland campaign manager, said: “Once again, action from Westminster has been necessary to ensure abortion rights are realised here.
“Services in line with our new law have been a long time coming; commissioning must now be swift to bring an end to the unacceptable denial of healthcare.”
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Ruairi Rowan, director of advocacy and policy at charity Informing Choices NI, said the action from Mr Lewis was “long overdue”.
“Immediate action must now be taken to provide the funding necessary to prevent the collapse of the central access point,” he added.
But Liam Gibson, from the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, said: “[Mr Lewis] is basically bypassing the devolved institutions and disenfranchising the people here.
“It really shouldn’t be tolerated and we are urging people to write to the First Minister and deputy First Minister to make sure that they resist this power grab from Westminster.
“This has implications, not just for unborn children, but it also underlines the devolution settlement.
“It is a very, very black day for both women, children and democracy.”