On Monday, Equalities Minister Justine Greening MP announced that women travelling from Northern Ireland should get access to abortion services ‘comparable with… women in England’
When the government first announced the scheme in June after Stella Creasy MP tabled an amendment to the Queen’s Speech, we knew that the Equalities Office was committed to removing the cost of the abortion itself. Before then, women in Northern Ireland were forced to have to raise urgent funds of up to £2,000. Through our pregnancy choices counselling service, FPA often spoke with women forced to disclose their decision to access abortion because they had to raise the money.
But now we also know that, once the scheme is up and running by the end of the year, women in ‘financial hardship situations’ will no longer have to pay for the flight, ferry, public transport or taxis needed to cross the Irish Sea and access a safe and legal abortion. Women who are in receipt of certain benefits or who have an income of £15,276 or less will also have their accommodation and the cost of a parent, carer or guardian accompanying them if necessary.
The Minister went into detail about how this will work in practice, outlining plans for a central booking system. She explained that ‘women from Northern Ireland will have a single telephone number to call and an appointment will be made with the most appropriate provider’, based on their needs. This booking service will also arrange travel and accommodation for those women who qualify. While it is still in the process of being set up, abortion care providers are offering an interim travel scheme, with BPAS’s Ann Furedi saying that the charity “will also be funding travel and accommodation for those women who meet the government’s eligibility criteria until a permanent framework is in place”.
This scheme will make a real difference to women forced to travel from Northern Ireland to access basic healthcare. The fact that there will be a centralised system for booking, and financial assistance for travel and accommodation shows the considerable efforts that have been taken to support as many women as possible. As Scotland looks to implement their own scheme for women travelling from Northern Ireland from 6th November, we hope that First Minister Nicola Sturgeon will be announcing similar measures.
However the fact remains that, however good the system is, it isn’t a fix for Northern Ireland’s abortion laws. Mara Clarke, director of the Abortion Support Network (which provides financial assistance to women in need of abortions) puts it best when she says that “this, like the services provided by ASN, is a sticking plaster. But it’s a substantial sticking plaster.” No matter what the Government Equalities Office provides in England, there will still be women who will be unable to travel. In Northern Ireland women facing an unplanned or crisis pregnancy are left with two options; risk prosecution by buying illegal abortion pills online, or be forced to carry the pregnancy to term against their will.
That’s why, alongside BPAS, ASN and other organisations including, the Royal Colleges of Midwives, Alliance for Choice and Antenatal Results and Choices, FPA is intervening today in a case at the Supreme Court, which will hear that Northern Ireland’s restrictive abortion law violates human rights.
The Court will be considering whether the existing criminal law in Northern Ireland in relation to abortion is lawful in three circumstances: where the pregnancy results from rape, or incest, or where it involves a serious foetal anomaly. That abortion isn’t available in these cases, as well as the fact that Northern Ireland has the harshest criminal penalties for abortion in Europe, demonstrates just how extreme the law is. It’s clear that there needs to be reform.
So although we congratulate the government on lifting a major obstacle to UK citizens accessing essential healthcare, it does not, as the Minister makes clear, ‘change the position in relation to the provision of abortions in Northern Ireland’ itself. Women must not be forced away in order to exercise their right to bodily autonomy. A clear majority of the Northern Ireland population and of organisations across civil society want to see abortion law reform. It’s time for the law to catch up.