Women in Northern Ireland will now be eligible for free abortions on the NHS in England, the government has announced, marking a “landmark moment” for women.
A vote on the issue had been scheduled for later today but Justine Greening, Conservative minister for women and equalities, made the major concession early in an apparent attempt to prevent a rebellion among her party’s MPs in the Commons, the Guardian reported.
The move will be life-changing for women and girls in Northern Ireland, who until now have been forced to shell out between £400 and £2,000 to access abortion services at private clinics in England – despite being UK citizens and taxpayers.
Unlike in other parts of the UK, abortion in Northern Ireland remains heavily restricted and is illegal even in cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormalities. It is only lawful if a woman's life is at risk or there is a permanent or serious risk to her physical or mental health.
During a debate on the Queen’s Speech, Chancellor Philip Hammond said Greening would soon be announcing her intention to intervene to fund abortions in England for women arriving here from Northern Ireland, and a letter from Greening to MPs confirmed this.
“As minister for women and equalities, I share the concerns of many colleagues about the experience of women from Northern Ireland obtaining an abortion through the NHS in England,” Greening wrote.
She added: “At present women from Northern Ireland are asked for payment and from now on it is our proposal that this will no longer happen. This is clearly a sensitive issue and one which has direct implications for equality in treatment of women from Northern Ireland,” reported the Guardian.
A group of more than 50 MPs from across the political spectrum, coordinated by Labour MP Stella Creasy, had backed a call for Northern Irish women to be eligible for free abortions in England. It was then selected by Speaker John Bercow as one of three amendments to the Queen’s Speech to be put to a vote.
Creasy responded to the news on Twitter: "Sisters in Northern Ireland we will hear your voices – have asked for speedy meeting with govt to make this a reality!
‘Thank you to MPs on all sides who supported call for change to help Northern Irish women have equal access to abortion."
Pro-choice groups have also expressed their delight at the news. A spokesperson for the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) hailed it as "a landmark moment". "Clearly this is not the solution to the gross injustice whereby women in Northern Ireland are denied access to abortion care at home, and we look forward to seeing progress on that front. Nevertheless this is an important moment, and we commend all those who have worked so hard to make this happen.”
Grainne Teggart, Northern Ireland campaign manager for Amnesty International, said it was "an important step for women’s rights" but added that there was still a long way to go for women in the country. "Women and girls from Northern Ireland will still have to bear the financial and emotional burden of having to travel for healthcare that should be available at home. They have been treated as second-class citizens for too long."
She said it was a matter of urgency for Northern Ireland's politicians "to bring the region’s archaic abortion laws into line with human rights standards, as repeatedly called for by United Nations committees.
"This should include the decriminalisation of abortion, so that women are treated as patients, not potential criminals.”
A spokesperson for Marie Stopes UK, which provides abortions, said: "Any action on the situation facing women seeking abortion in Northern Ireland is both welcome and long overdue," and called it "a hugely positive step forward".
"But there is no reason why these services shouldn’t be provided in Northern Ireland, saving thousands of women each year the cost and stress of travelling to the mainland."
The famously anti-abortion DUP, with whom prime minister Theresa May just secured a deal, is yet to comment on the issue.