Westminster could force Northern Ireland to offer abortion services

·3 min read
Abortion was decriminalised in Northern Ireland in 2019, but Brandon Lewis has warned Stormont it needs to fulfil its 'moral duty' to women and girls - Charles McQuillan/Getty Images
Abortion was decriminalised in Northern Ireland in 2019, but Brandon Lewis has warned Stormont it needs to fulfil its 'moral duty' to women and girls - Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Westminster could overrule Stormont and force Northern Ireland to provide abortion services, a leaked letter between ministers has revealed.

Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland Secretary, wrote to Paul Givan, the First Minister, and his deputy, Michelle O’Neill, warning he would have “no alternative” but to make provisions for women and girls to access the services “to which they have a right”.

A letter, obtained by The Telegraph, revealed that Mr Lewis warned that continued failure to implement provision for abortions could leave the nation in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights. It has also emerged that Stormont officials have “blocked” their Westminster counterparts from attending meetings on the matter.

Since the decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland in 2019, Stormont has been formally directed to commission the services before the end of March 2022. However, there has been little progress.

‘Moral duty’

In the letter, sent on Tuesday and shared with this newspaper, Mr Lewis asked Mr Givan for a “commitment” that he will comply with such “legal obligations”, as well as the “moral duty” to afford women and girls the same “fundamental human rights” as those in the UK.

“The continued delays and attempts to block the limited proposals on provision of abortion services that have been tabled to date are entirely unacceptable,” he said. “Parliament has decided that women should have access to these services and this decision must be respected.”

He concluded: “Finally, if it becomes clear to me at any stage before the March 2022 deadline that the Department of Health or Executive are not making sufficient progress, or are intent on blocking this issue, I will have no alternative but to take further steps to ensure that women and girls have access to abortion services as decided by Parliament, and to which they have a right.”

Brandon Lewis said that if Stormont does not make sufficient progress, he will have 'no alternative but to take further steps to ensure that women and girls have access to abortion services' - Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images
Brandon Lewis said that if Stormont does not make sufficient progress, he will have 'no alternative but to take further steps to ensure that women and girls have access to abortion services' - Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images

Westminster sources have confirmed that the Northern Ireland Office is assessing the options to directly intervene and deliver the services with health trusts, should Stormont fail to do so.

In a separate letter to Robin Swann, Stormont’s Health Minister, Mr Lewis demanded to see “a detailed assessment of progress to date”, as well as a roadmap to meeting the March 2022 deadline.

He also added that officials within his department had “regrettably” been “blocked” from attending meetings with their Northern Irish counterparts - a move which he described as “unacceptable”.

Change in the law

Abortion was decriminalised in Northern Ireland in October 2019. However since then, the nation’s Department of Health has neither commissioned nor funded any services.

Before the law change, a woman in Northern Ireland were only permitted to have an abortion if her life was at risk, or if there was a risk of permanent damage to her mental or physical health.

As a result, women often risked prosecution to undergo the procedure in England or Ireland.

Last month, a High Court judge ruled that Mr Lewis had failed to uphold his duties to provide full abortion services in Northern Ireland - a move which put the Government in Westminster under mounting pressure to address the situation.

Louise McCudden, UK advocacy and public affairs adviser at MSI Reproductive Choices, said: “It’s now over two years since abortion was decriminalised in Northern Ireland, and yet abortion services are still yet to be properly commissioned.

“Abortion is essential healthcare, and a human right. We support greater pressure and transparency about how the deadline will be met. March 2022 is far too late as it is.”

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