Claire Pierson and Fiona Bloomer
Restrictive abortion legislation in Northern Ireland (NI) results in approximately 1000 women per year travelling to England to access the procedure. But these women are not able to access abortion on the UK National Health Service, despite being UK tax-payers; instead they must pay as private patients. Late in June, the Minister for Women and Equalities in England stated that the government will pay the costs of the Northern Irish women who travel, and the following week the Welsh and Scottish First Ministers indicated they will follow suit.
This act of solidarity by the three other nations which make up the UK is not altogether surprising. It follows a case taken by a Northern Irish mother and daughter who travelled to England to access abortion and challenged the payment of costs as discriminatory. The case reached the UK Supreme Court but was ultimately unsuccessful. The judges noted that payment could be discriminatory but said it was a matter for the Health Secretary to determine. Their case, plus years of campaigning by groups such as Alliance for Choice, have resulted in a partial furthering of rights for women in NI, 50 years after the British Abortion Act was introduced.
However, the UK Parliament decision cannot be the end of the story. Now that British governments have recognised that Northern Irish women must have equality within the NHS system it becomes incumbent on them to recognise and acknowledge that the Northern Irish Assembly is limiting women’s rights by refusing to allow them access to abortion and related care in their own region. As our recent article for this journal demonstrates, politicians within the NI Assembly have recognised that the language of human rights is powerful and have manipulated the concept of rights to continue to restrict this access.
Even limited reform of abortion laws for specific circumstances such as fatal fetal anomaly and sexual crime has not occurred. This is compounded by the NI Court of Appeal last week overturning a previous judicial review decision from 2015 which found the denial of abortions in such cases to contravene women’s rights under the European Convention. The case will now proceed to the UK Supreme Court, but this offers no solace to the women who will continue to travel to England in similar circumstances.
It is of note that there have been few attempts by the UK Parliament to address the issue of unequal access to abortion for the women of NI. The most notable was in 2008 when attempts were made to extend the 1967 Abortion Act to NI. All the main political parties in NI argued that to do was against the will of the people of (ignoring polls and surveys which stated otherwise). In response the Labour-led government stated it would not support the amendment for fear the peace process would be put at risk. Between 2008 and 2017 there were no other attempts in the UK to improve access to abortion in NI.
The proposals made by the rest of the UK are to be broadly welcomed. The cost of paying for an abortion ranges from £300 (US$390) to £2000 (US$2600). Such costs are a significant barrier to those in lower socio-economic groups. However, little is known about the detail of these proposals—will it include costs for travel, accommodation, and counselling? Will travel and accommodation costs be extended to a partner or companion to travel with the woman? How will minors access services? How will the referral pathway operate? How will post-abortion care be made available?
In addition, it should be noted that additional barriers are faced by women in situations of domestic abuse whose movements may be controlled, for women with complex health needs, with caring responsibilities, and for those who do not have the identification documents necessary for travel.
These proposals, if enacted, will make a difference to women who can travel. Such attempts to improve access to abortion are welcome. However, they provide only a partial response to abortion access, and effectively continue to export the issue to the rest of the UK. This situation fails to recognise the right for abortion services to be accessible to the women who need them.
Claire Pierson, PhD, is a research associate in the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies and Department of Health, Psychology and Social Care at Manchester Metropolitan University, Manchester, England.
Fiona Bloomer, PhD, is a lecturer in social policy at the Institute for Research in Social Sciences, School of Criminology, Politics and Social Policy, at Ulster University, Jordanstown, Northern Ireland.
Please address correspondence to Claire Pierson. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.