In what is undoubtedly one of the most progressive steps in recent history for Northern Ireland women’s rights the UK government has today announced details of a scheme that will provide free abortion services in England for women travelling from Northern Ireland. This move should be welcomed as a major breakthrough. But pro-choice campaigners cannot hang up their hats just yet. This announcement does not change the cruel and archaic abortion ban within Northern Ireland.
On Monday the UK Equalities Minister Justine Greening outlined for the first time details of a scheme that will allow women from Northern Ireland to access free abortion services in England. The announcement came days before the 50th anniversary of the introduction of the 1967 Abortion Act. This legalised abortion under certain circumstances in England and Wales and Scotland but was not extended to Northern Ireland.
As a result, over 700 women every year travel to Great Britain from Northern Ireland to terminate their pregnancies (abortion is also effectively illegal in the Republic of Ireland so they have to make an overseas journey). Until now they have had to pay for these services privately, at a cost of up to £2,000, because of a bar on women from Northern Ireland accessing abortion services on the NHS, despite Northern Ireland women paying the same national insurance and tax as their sisters elsewhere in the UK.
Hundreds of women have been forced to turn to charity or take out loans from unscrupulous money lenders in order to fund a procedure available for free on the NHS to other UK residents.
Now, at least some of these hardships and injustices are to be alleviated. According to Greening’s announcement, from the end of the year, women from Northern Ireland will be eligible for:
– Travel and accommodation costs to be covered for women on low income (less than £15,276 or in receipt of income support/income-based JSA, income-related ESA or Pension Guarantee Credit)
– Procedures to be free at the point of delivery, rather than paid for upfront and reimbursed
– A central telephone booking system through which clients will be able to arrange an appointment with a healthcare professional in England
Women in Northern Ireland have been eagerly awaiting details of the scheme since June when Chancellor Philip Hammond first announced the introduction of the policy. The policy came about as a result of a motion to amend the Queen’s Speech put forward by Labour MP Stella Creasy in June. Since then, Creasy has been working tirelessly with pro-choice campaigners and Justine Greening’s office to put meat on the bones of the policy.
The London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign, along with our friends and allies in other pro-choice organisations, very much welcomes this announcement. We particularly applaud the confirmation that travel costs will be covered for low-income women and that the service will be free at the point of use. For women who have had to find what may have been simply a prohibitive sum of money quickly, this scheme will make a huge difference.
This is a major step but it is not a solution. As Mara Clarke, director of the Abortion Support Network, which provides financial assistance to women in need of abortions, has said, it is a ‘sticking plaster.’ And the wound runs deep and wide.
It is a disgrace that any modern European democracy imposes criminal sanctions on women seeking essential healthcare. Exporting the problem to take advantage of a more liberal regime in a nearby country is not a solution. Travel involves stress, time off work, time away from family and friendship networks at what may be a difficult and emotional time. It reinforces stigma and shame. Not all women can travel, for a whole host of reasons, including health reasons, childcare issues, abusive partners and lack of documentation. These women need abortions too.
Most of all, the guarantee of free, safe, legal abortion is a measure of equality, fairness and respect for women’s basic healthcare needs and human rights. We are celebrating today but we must not forget that Northern Ireland still falls far short on those markers.
You can find out about the work of the London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign here
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