Northern Irish women win abortion fight
A decades-long struggle to give Northern Ireland women access to terminations on the NHS in mainland Britain was unexpectedly won in the space of 24 hours last Thursday, as the UK government dramatically changed its policy in an attempt to head off a damaging Tory rebellion on the Queen’s speech.
Dozens of Conservative MPs were understood to have expressed to Tory whips their support for an amendment by Labour MP Stella Creasy to allow Northern Irish women access to NHS-funded abortions.
Women from Northern Ireland are currently charged about £900 ($1,160) for a termination if they travel to mainland Britain, a policy upheld by a supreme court case last month. Northern Ireland has some of Europe’s most restrictive abortion laws and it is almost impossible for a woman to have a safe, legal abortion there.
Ahead of last week’s Queen’s speech vote, the business secretary, Greg Clark, said the government had listened to the concerns, praising Creasy. “She has brought to the House an injustice – and we will put that injustice right.”
In the end, Creasy withdrew her amendment, claiming victory. “I’m delighted at today’s announcement and satisfied by the commitments given,” Creasy said, as education secretary and equalities minister Justine Greening looked on, smiling. “Let us send a message to women everywhere that in this parliament their voices will be heard and their rights upheld.”
The Department of Health had previously defended its policy not to fund abortions for Northern Irish women in England, arguing in court that to do so would undermine the Northern Ireland assembly. However, the mood suddenly shifted in Westminster when the case and Creasy’s amendment caught MPs’ attention. The result was a full capitulation from the government.
In a letter to MPs outlining the new funding for abortion provision, Greening hinted at personal sympathy with the issue. She wrote: “At present, women from Northern Ireland are asked for payment, and from now on it is our proposal that this will no longer happen. This is clearly a sensitive issue and one which has direct implications for equality in treatment of women from Northern Ireland.”