Northern Irish woman told to go to England for abortion gets case heard


A Northern Irish woman told to travel to England for an abortion during the pandemic lockdown will have her case against the Northern Ireland secretary, the Northern Ireland Executive and its health department heard at Belfast high court on Wednesday.

The woman, whose is bringing the case with the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC), argues she was put at risk even though abortion should be legally available to women in the country.

The NIHRC launched the landmark legal action against the parties at the start of the year for their failure to commission safe and accessible abortion services, more than a year after abortion was made legal in Northern Ireland.

It accuses the Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, of unlawfully denying the rights of women in the country, warning that they continue to be forced to use unregulated services and to travel during the pandemic.

In a statement, the woman at the centre of the case said the service in her trust area was suspended and she could not be referred anywhere else in Northern Ireland. “Travelling to England would have put me at risk at a time when we were being urged not to travel,” she said.

“It would have left me having to explain why I was travelling to England at the time of the pandemic and needed time off work at short notice. I would have had to invent an excuse or refuse to give any reasons. I was not comfortable with doing either of those things.”

Instead the woman obtained early medical abortion pills through Women on the Web, a digital community that provides medical consultations, abortion drugs and online support which advised her to go to her GP or A&E if anything went wrong.

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“I felt that I was left with no choice and [had] to take a risk I could have avoided,” she said. “I had not told my GP about my circumstances and arriving at A&E would have been awful.”

The woman said she was lucky to have a supportive husband, to be able to pay for abortion pills and have no complications. “Having to deal with this unexpectedly and at such short notice was extremely stressful and I do wonder what it would be like for other women facing different circumstances,” she said.

Abortion was legalised in Northern Ireland in October 2019 after a Westminster vote led by the Labour MP Stella Creasy took advantage of a paralysed Stormont, despite an 11th-hour attempt by the region’s assembly to block change. Officials confirmed termination could go ahead in April 2020 after the threat of legal action by pro-choice campaigners.

Les Allamby, chief commissioner of the NIHRC, said the failure to fund and commission abortion services in Northern Ireland breached the European convention on human rights.

“The secretary of state is saying he is doing his best to resolve the matter, the NI Executive claim it is not a matter for them and the Department of Health say it cannot go ahead without the agreement of the NI Executive,” he said.

“This ‘pass the parcel’ where the music never stops has been going on for over a year with little sign of movement until we decided to go to court,” he said. “It is indefensible that in 2021 women and girls are still being asked to travel to England to access abortion services or being left with no other option than to take unregulated pills.”

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