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HomePoliticsEuropean PoliticsBritain orders Northern Ireland to introduce full abortion services

Britain orders Northern Ireland to introduce full abortion services

The British government has ordered Northern Ireland’s coalition government to introduce full-fledged abortion services, more than a year after legislation passed in Westminster required this to happen.

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis issued the order Thursday directing the U.K. region’s Department of Health and Health Minister Robin Swann to make Northern Ireland compliant with British abortion law.

While Irish Catholics in the five-party coalition broadly support the action as legally necessary, opposition runs high among the Protestant evangelical base of the Democratic Unionist Party. The DUP vows to keep resisting the move and to campaign against any unionists who back it.

“This ongoing stalemate leaves me no choice but to issue a direction. I have a legal and moral obligation to ensure that women and girls in Northern Ireland are afforded their rights,” Lewis said.

Abortion was legalized in Britain in 1967. But it wasn’t extended to Northern Ireland until April 2020, after Westminster passed an abortion services law at a time when the feud-prone Northern Ireland Executive was mothballed.

Since then, some Northern Ireland hospitals and clinics have quietly launched ad-hoc services providing termination-inducing medicines to women, but only in cases involving pregnancies of 10 weeks or less.

Swann has declined to commission plans for Northern Ireland-wide provision, including for cases involving fetal abnormalities as the law permits. This means that, while about 1,550 first-trimester abortions have been carried out in Northern Ireland over the past year, thousands more women seeking abortions have traveled to Britain.

“I acknowledge and respect the deeply held views that individuals hold on this issue,” Lewis said. “However, it is the clear will of parliament that the rights of women and girls in Northern Ireland are properly upheld.”

Lewis said he expects Swann and the Department of Health to produce plans for introducing wider abortion services, and for the full Executive to approve them, by a deadline of March 2022 — just two months before the next scheduled Northern Ireland Assembly election.

Swann, the Executive’s sole minister from the Ulster Unionist Party, has been slow to move in part because the UUP, itself divided on abortion, fears being branded pro-abortion by the harder-line Democratic Unionists. Swann has argued that he cannot commission spending on abortion services until the full Executive, with four DUP ministers, sanctions the move.

This article is part of POLITICO’s premium policy service: Pro Health Care. From drug pricing, EMA, vaccines, pharma and more, our specialized journalists keep you on top of the topics driving the health care policy agenda. Email [email protected] for a complimentary trial.

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