UK government moves to compel Northern Ireland to expand abortion services

An anti-abortion activist holds a replica of a human fetus as demonstrators gather outside the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S.

The British government published legislation on Tuesday to hand it powers to compel Northern Ireland to implement more liberal abortion services, despite opposition from the region’s first minister and health minister.

Britain’s parliament voted in 2019 to legalise abortion in Northern Ireland, allowing terminations without restriction up to 12 weeks and with no time limit in the case of “severe foetal impairment or fatal foetal abnormality”.

But while the regional government is allowing early medical abortion up to 10 weeks, it has not implemented the rules in full, forcing some women to travel to other parts of the United Kingdom to access terminations.

“While there may been some inevitable delay by the Department of Health in Northern Ireland in commissioning abortion services, given the unforeseen pressures of responding to the Covid pandemic, almost a year has passed since the Abortion Regulations came into effect,” the British government’s Northern Ireland Office said in an explanatory note to the proposed legislation.

“We have reached a point where it remains clear that the Department of Health will not move forward to make positive progress on this matter,” the note said.

The legislation hands Northern Ireland minister Brandon Lewis “the power that certain public authorities take action”, giving him the power to bypass ministerial objections.

Northern Ireland’s first minister, Arlene Foster, and her socially conservative Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) have opposed the implementation of the new abortion rules, saying they would represent one of the most liberal abortion rules in Western Europe and lack popular support.

DUP member of parliament Jeffrey Donaldson last week described plans to implement the legislation as “a fundamental breach of the devolution settlement”, which grants the Northern Ireland Executive responsibility for health issues.

The region’s socially conservative health minister, Robin Swann, a member of the rival Ulster Unionist Party, has repeatedly voiced his opposition to implementing the new services.

Abortion rights activists say opinion polls show Northern Ireland supportive of more liberal abortion rules and accuse the regional administration of violating womens’ rights by blocking the services.

The British government says the legislation is required to uphold the country’s obligations to the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, which in 2018 said Northern Ireland’s restrictions of abortion represented discrimination against women.

The new legislation is a “necessary and appropriate means of ensuring” that recommendations from the UN body were fulfilled, the Northern Ireland Office note said.

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