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

11 Jan 2021

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

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission has initiated legal action against the Secretary of State, NI Executive and Department of Health for Northern Ireland for failing to commission and fund abortion services in Northern Ireland.

Chief Commissioner Les Allamby commented:

“We are deeply disappointed that we are yet again having to take legal action. Our focus is to ensure that human rights are upheld and the law passed in Westminster is implemented in practice. We must never forget this is about a critical health service for women.”

Full statement:

The Commission is deeply concerned at the lack of commissioned and funded abortion services in Northern Ireland, leading to a vacuum for many women and girls seeking such services. One health and social care trust recently ceased to provide a service for three months while another has just stopped providing a service, leaving women and girls to travel to the rest of the UK, elsewhere in Ireland, or to use unregulated services.

The Commission has previously sought to engage with the NI Executive and the Department of Health to resolve this issue and is taking this legal action as a last resort.

The Commission believes that the failure of the NI Executive and Department to agree to fund and commission these services breaches the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has a statutory requirement under the NI (Executive Formation) Act 2019 to ensure that the recommendations of the Convention of the Elimination of Discrimination against Women committee are implemented, namely that women have access to free and safe abortions in Northern Ireland.

The Commission wants the Department to be permitted to commission and fund the abortion services provided for in the Abortion (Northern Ireland) (No 2) Regulations 2020; and expects the Secretary of State to take such legislative action as is necessary to meet his legal duty to ensure this happens, including if necessary to take legislative action.

The Commission has lodged judicial review proceedings in the High Court and awaits the Court’s consideration of this matter.

The Commission has published a fact sheet with further information, which can be found here.


Notes to editors:

1. What is the current law in Northern Ireland on Abortion?

• Since 31 March 2020, terminations have been legalised in NI in a number of circumstances including under any circumstances by a registered doctor, nurse or midwife up to 12 weeks and where there is a risk to physical or mental health in the opinion of two registered medical professionals up to 24 weeks.

• Terminations with no gestational limit are also now legal in NI where there is an immediate necessity to save a life or to prevent a grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of a pregnant woman, or in cases of severe foetal impairment or fatal foetal abnormality.

• The new law was introduced in the Executive Formation Act (NI) 2019 requiring the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to implement in full the recommendations of the UN Convention of Elimination of Discrimination of Women inquiry into abortion in Northern Ireland which held that the (then) law created grave and serious violations of human rights.

2. How is the current law being implemented in Northern Ireland?

• The Department of Health has not commissioned or funded termination services for the purposes of implementing the Abortion (Northern Ireland) (No 2) Regulations across Northern Ireland.

• The Department of Health has failed to issue any guidance to health and social care trusts on the provision of abortion services including when and in what circumstances medical staff may exercise their freedom of conscience when delivering a service.

• Papers were submitted to the NI Executive by the Department of Health in April and May 2020 seeking to commission a service. We understand the NI Executive has not yet discussed the paper submitted in May 2020.

• Health and social care trusts are offering termination within existing services and only where resources allow. This was done as a short term measure by transferring staff from other sexual and reproductive services which were held in abeyance or reduced as a result of Covid restrictions.

• Several months ago, the five health and social care trusts produced an application seeking funding to meet the new legislative requirements for abortion services but this was not considered by the Health and Social Care Board.

• From 5 October 2020 the Northern Health and Social Care Trust had to transfer staff back into other sexual and reproductive health care services and therefore ceased to take any new referrals for termination services and the remaining four trusts are not providing abortions for between 10 and 12 weeks due to lack of resources. Other trusts have not got the resources to pick up this work. On 4 January 2021 it restored the service.

• From 5 January 2021 the South East Health and Social Care Trust ceased to provide a service as the only clinician providing the service went on maternity leave and no replacement has been found for her.

• Termination services for medical reasons up to 24 weeks or without a gestational time limit, in line with the Abortion Regulations, are mainly performed by the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust.

3. What are the key concerns?

• The lack of a Department supported approach has created a disparity in accessing termination services within Northern Ireland.

• It has also meant that many, depending on their circumstances and where they live in Northern Ireland, continue to have to travel to England or to Ireland and pay for a service or to use unregulated services.

• The current situation raises public health considerations for those women who are left with no choice but to travel to use a service.

4. What human rights are engaged?

• The issue of access abortion engages a wide number of human rights, across a number of the international treaties signed and ratified by the UK government. In general terms these include the right to the highest attainable standard of health; the right to freedom from inhuman and degrading treatment, the right to private and family life; and, non-discrimination.

5. 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.

6. 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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