Northern Ireland

No free abortions for women from Northern Ireland, U.K. court rules

The U.K. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that women in Northern Ireland are not entitled to access abortions via the National Health Service, a decision that’s being heavily criticized by pro-choice organizations.

The ruling came after a 20-year-old Northern Irish woman and her mother brought a case against U.K. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt. The woman got pregnant in 2012 at age 15 but was forced to travel to the U.K. mainland for a termination – at a cost of over $1,000 – because abortion is only allowed in severely restricted circumstances in Northern Ireland.

While U.K. citizens in England, Wales, and Scotland all have access to abortions for free via the NHS, the government limits access in Northern Ireland in order to “respect” the policies of local politicians there.

While Jeremy Hunt conceded he had the power to give Northern Irish residents access to NHS abortions in England, the court narrowly rejected the women’s appeal. Despite saying they wanted to respect “the democratic decision of the people of Northern Ireland,” the judges also stressed they were “sharply divided” on the outcome, ruling 3-2 against the appellant.

Lady Hale and Lord Kerr said they would have allowed the latest appeal, because “the policy is incompatible with the Convention rights of women from Northern Ireland.”

Delivering the majority decision, Lord Wilson said the five judges were “sharply divided,” and he expressed sympathy for the “deeply unenviable position” women in Northern Ireland are put in.

Last year alone, more than 720 women traveled to England from Northern Ireland for abortions, according to the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (Bpas). Responding to the Supreme Court decision, the CEO Ann Furedi said she was “disappointed” with the outcome, adding: “This ruling confirms it is in Jeremy Hunt’s power to grant NHS-funded abortion care to women resident in Northern Ireland, and his refusal to do so is political. It is not based on cost.” Bpas said the ruling was likely to be appealed at the European Court of Human Rights.

Access to abortion in Northern Ireland has been in the spotlight in recent days as a result of the Democratic Unionist Party’s pivotal role in helping to form the next government in the U.K.

The Conservatives have been holding talks with DUP leadership to iron out a so-called “supply and confidence” arrangement that would enable them to remain in power after the recent U.K. election resulted in a hung Parliament.

Many have criticized Prime Minister Theresa May for choosing to go into partnership with the Northern Irish party, given its hard-line views on subjects like same-sex marriage and women’s rights – particularly abortion.

The DUP has long fought to stop any extension of abortion rights in Northern Ireland, with First Minister Arlene Foster quoted as saying she would not want abortion to be “as freely available here as it is in England.”

Cover: Sipa USA via AP

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