Paying the price for northern Ireland’s ban on abortion

Today’s Supreme Court ruling upholding the ban on NHS funded abortions for Northern Irish women is disappointing and a further blow to women’s rights.

The case was taken against the Secretary of State Jeremy Hunt, by a mother and her 15-year-old daughter know as ‘A and B’, who travelled from Northern Ireland to England in 2012 for an abortion at a private clinic. The substantial costs involved meant they had to turn to a charity, the Abortion Support Network, for help.

Abortion is illegal under most circumstances in Northern Ireland and every year hundreds of women are forced to travel to Britain for terminations. This is due to the fact that the 1967 Abortion Act was never extended to Northern Ireland. Even if they travel outside of Northern Ireland to elsewhere in the UK, Northern Irish women are not permitted to access abortion on the NHS, despite paying the same taxes as those elsewhere in the UK. ‘A & B’ brought the case in a bid to change this. However, today’s ruling means the type of healthcare available to UK women will remain dependant on their postcode.  

The Supreme Court voted three to two, to uphold the current ban on NHS access for Northern Irish women, but did acknowledge that it discriminates against women in Northern Ireland.

What does this mean?

The judgement comes one day after the Department of Health released its national abortion statistics for England and Wales which showed that a total of 724 women travel from Northern Ireland to access a free, safe and legal abortion. Because of the abortion laws across the island of Ireland, a total of 3,989 women had to make the journey to England and Wales to get an abortion. Around 47% were in their 20s, and nearly half were married or in a civil partnership.

Mara Clarke, Director of the Abortion Support Network said:  “These numbers do not capture the women who cannot travel – women who need, but cannot obtain, passports or visas; women who cannot escape from violent partners; and women who do not have the £400 to £2,000 it costs to travel to England and pay privately for an abortion.”

The additional financial and other barriers faced by A in this case forced her, like the hundreds of other Northern Irish women who travel, to have a much later and more physically invasive procedure than she wanted. On hearing about the emotional strain and cost of travel, ‘the judges expressed a profound sympathy for the “plight” of women in Northern Ireland facing an unplanned pregnancy.

What's next?

Speaking about today’s judgement the London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign’s Caitlin de Jode said: “Northern Irish women have been let down and left behind by the government in Westminster since 1967, and today’s ruling means this is set to continue.

“We call on the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, MP, to end this clear discrimination against Northern Irish women. At the very least, we can hope that today’s judgement in this landmark case will focus the attention of the wider British public on the discrimination that Northern Irish women have faced every day for the last 50 years. For A & B, and the hundreds of women who are treated like second class citizens of the UK, that will be of little comfort. We stand in solidarity with all who are forced to travel, and forced to pay the price for political inaction.”

Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC has described this as a landmark case for abortion rights. Despite the judgment, there was a clear acknowledgment within the court that Northern Irish Women are being discriminated against. It was also made clear that it would have been possible for the supreme court to improve the situation for women in Northern Ireland.

‘The Secretary of State for Health accepts that it is within his power to arrange for abortion services to be provided to women from Northern Ireland through the NHS in England but he has refused to exercise that power.’

In his dissenting judgement, Lord Kerr, formerly Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland argued that the ban should be lifted, stating that lifting the ban on Northern Irish women accessing abortion on the NHS in Britain would not undermine the democratic process of Northern Ireland:

“The Northern irish Assembly had decided that abortion in that jurisdiction should not be provided on the same basis as in England but it has expressed no view about the ability of NI women to travel to England to obtain abortions.Assembly members are plainly aware of the fact that of the fact that many women form NI travel every year to England to obtain abortions and have done so for many years...why should affording Northern Irish women abortion on the NHS constitute a lack of respect (for the democratic process), when countenancing and permitting such abortions do not?”

The solicitor for ‘A and B’, Angela Jackman, has confirmed that ‘A and B’ now plan to exercise their right to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights.

A and B issued the following statement:

“We are really encouraged that two of the judges found in our favour and all of the judges were sympathetic to A’s situation.  We have come this far and fought hard because the issues are so important for women in Northern Ireland.  For this reason, we will do all that we can to take the fight further.  We have instructed our legal team to file an application with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, to protect the human rights of the many other women who make the lonely journey to England every week because they are denied access to basic healthcare services in their own country.”

 More information:

http://www.doughtystreet.co.uk/news/article/supreme-court-split-on-landmark-northern-ireland-abortion-rights-case

https://www.bpas.org/about-our-charity/press-office/press-releases/ban-on-nhs-funded-abortion-care-for-women-in-northern-ireland-narrowly-upheld-due-to-government-s-respect-for-decisions-of-the-ni-assembly/

https://humanism.org.uk/2017/06/14/supreme-court-dismisses-case-challenging-lack-of-free-abortions-for-northern-irish-women-on-nhs/

 

Hannah Little