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Human Rights Commission Legal Action on Lack of Abortion Services in NI Begins

25 May 2021

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission is at Belfast High Court on the first day of its hearing against the Secretary of State, NI Executive and Department of Health for Northern Ireland for the failure to commission and fund abortion services in Northern Ireland. The case will be heard from 10.30am remotely and is expected to run over two days.

The Commission’s case supports a woman who was affected by the lack of commissioning of services during the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2020, the woman was told she could not have an abortion through her local trust as the service was unavailable in her area. She was told she would instead have to travel to England during the pandemic to have her abortion. She has been granted anonymity by the Court.

In a statement, the woman who has been granted anonymity by the court has spoken about how it affected her:

“The service in my Trust area was suspended and I could not be referred anywhere else in Northern Ireland. Travelling to England would have put me at risk at a time when we were being urged not to travel. There were other reasons why I did not wish to travel to England. It would have left me having to explain why I was travelling to England at the time of the pandemic and needed time off work at short notice. I would have had to invent an excuse or refuse to give any reasons. I was not comfortable with doing either of those things.

I utilised the service of ‘Women on the Web’ and paid for early medical abortion pills. This was not a service I wanted to use but I felt that I was left with no choice and I felt I was having to take a risk I could have avoided. I was very aware that ‘Women on the Web’ were providing the service remotely and while I received supportive advice from them it was no substitute for the reassurance that accessing a NHS service would provide. In particular, I was advised that if anything went wrong as a result of taking the pills I should present myself to my GP or go to A&E in my local hospital. I had not told my GP about my circumstances and arriving at A&E would have been awful. Luckily I did not have to do either.

From my experience I was struck my how lucky I was that I had a supportive husband, that my financial circumstances were such that I could pay for early abortion pills and that I did not have any difficulties once I had taken them. Nonetheless having to deal with this unexpectedly and at such short notice was extremely stressful and I do wonder what it would be like for other women facing different circumstances. I felt it was deeply unfair I could not access a service because of where I lived and that I had to go through this without local clinical support and ready access to after care services if needed.”

Chief Commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission Les Allamby added:

“The Commission is taking legal action to ensure the law that now requires equal access to abortion services is met.

Abortion was legalised in Northern Ireland in 2019. The Commission believes that the failure of the NI Executive and Department of Health to enable the funding and commissioning of abortion services in Northern Ireland breaches the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Secretary of State is saying he is doing his best to resolve the matter, the NI Executive claim it is not a matter for them and the Department of Health say it cannot go ahead without the agreement of the NI Executive.

This ‘pass the parcel’ where the music never stops has been going on for over a year with little sign of movement until we decided to go to court. It is indefensible that in 2021 women and girls are still being asked to travel to England to access abortion services or being left with no other option than to take unregulated pills.

We are disappointed at having to take legal action again, however, whilst women and girls human rights continue to be violated we will continue to challenge the law and practice in Northern Ireland. We would like to thank the woman who has bravely supported this case and shared her story to help further women and girls from having to go through such experiences in the future.”

Further information:

This action is being brought against the Department of Health, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Executive. Amnesty International and Informing Choices NI have provided a joint intervention in the case. The Health and Social Care Board is an interested party.

Notes to editors:

  • For information on this case view the Commissions Fact Sheet here
  • The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission is an independent statutory body first proposed in the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement (1998) and established in 1999 by the Northern Ireland Act (1998). It is answerable to Parliament at Westminster.
  • In accordance with the Paris Principles the Commission reviews the adequacy and effectiveness of measures undertaken by the UK Government to promote and protect human rights, specifically within Northern Ireland. Read more about the work of the Commission in its latest Annual Report here. Read about the Commission’s annual statement here
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