- Lifestyle & Sports
- 22 Jul 21
Abortion was decriminalised in 2019 in Northern Ireland, but full services have been stalled.
Westminster has directed Stormont's Department of Health to set up full abortion services in Northern Ireland by March 2022 at the latest.
According to BBC Northern Ireland this morning, the British government has intervened with a formal direction requiring Stormont to act.
Changes to abortion laws came into effect in 2020 after Westminster acted during the absence of devolution. Since then, the commissioning of services has been stalled due to disagreement within the five-party executive. Last March, Secretary of State Brandon Lewis took unprecedented powers allowing him to direct Stormont to act, but he chose not to utilise them until today.
Hearing a pretty significant step is imminent from @BrandonLewis on NÍ abortion laws - understand he is issuing a direction to Stormont’s Dept of health that abortion services must be commissioned in full by 31 March next year
— Jayne McCormack (@BBCJayneMcC) July 22, 2021
The UK government previously said it was required to uphold legal and human rights duties on Northern Ireland abortion services and would be forced intervene if the delay at Stormont did not cease.
In a written statement to Parliament, Brandon Lewis said he was issuing the direction to the Department of Health, Health Minister Robin Swann and to the Health and Social Care Board.
While he recognised the difficult burden Covid-19 had placed on healthcare, he expressed how "extremely disappointed" he was that full commissioning proposals have not progressed.
"This ongoing stalemate leaves me no choice but to issue a direction," he wrote. "I have a legal and moral obligation to ensure the women and girls in Northern Ireland are afforded their rights and can access the healthcare."
The Secretary of State made sure to add that he "acknowledges and respects the deeply held views that individuals hold" on abortion laws.
"However, it is the clear will of Parliament that the rights of women and girls in Northern Ireland are properly upheld."
Lewis said he was also directing Stormont's first and deputy first ministers that "once proposals are brought forward by the Department of Health, they must be included on the agenda" at the next executive meeting.
The move will likely face criticism from some Northern Ireland parties, who accused Lewis of breaching devolution when he initially intervened earlier this year.
The British Government has also ordered "immediate support" for interim early medical abortion services in the province.
According to the latest figures from Northern Ireland's Department of Health, 1,556 terminations have taken place since March 2020. Health trusts have been only carrying out limited services, meaning some women seeking an abortion beyond 10 weeks in their pregnancy have had to travel to mainland Britain to access services.
The Department of Health has maintained that the matter is "controversial" and any decision on abortion services must be made by the whole executive.
In May, proposals from Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) Health Minister Robin Swann on commissioning of abortion services were blocked from executive discussion by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
The party is opposed to abortion and has previously criticised Lewis for taking powers to act, saying it would have "serious consequences for devolution".
Sinn Féin, the SDLP and Alliance have states that they would support the commissioning of services being imposed by Westminster, if the executive continues to stall.
Read Brandon Lewis' statement in full below:
— Amanda Ferguson (@AmandaFBelfast) July 22, 2021
Photo credit: Paul Faith
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