Abortion was banned in almost all circumstances, even rape and incest, with women seeking terminations facing life imprisonment, until the procedure was legalised in Northern Ireland in October 2019.
But the roll-out of abortion services has been plagued with issues due to the government’s failure to roll out services for pregnancy terminations.
The few abortion providers in place are being run by those in the voluntary sector, with campaigners warning women’s access to abortion services are on a “cliff-edge”.
Brandon Lewis, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, stepped in on Thursday to declare abortion services in Northern Ireland must be created “as soon as possible” with a final deadline of the end of March 2022.
Mr Lewis warned “immediate support” needs to be provided for current abortion services in Northern Ireland due to them currently struggling.
In a statement released on Thursday, the politician said he has a “statutory duty” to safeguard the rights of women and girls living in Northern Ireland.
He is obliged to “provide women with access to high-quality abortion and post-abortion care in all public health facilities”, Mr Lewis said.
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland added. “I acknowledge and respect the deeply held views that individuals hold on this issue. However, it is the clear will of parliament that the rights of women and girls in Northern Ireland are properly upheld.”
Northern Ireland’s Human Rights Commission has launched a landmark legal challenge against the Northern Ireland Executive and the UK government over the protracted failure to commission abortion services. In their view, the delay infringes women and girls’ human rights.
Grainne Teggart, Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland Campaign Manager, said: “Once again action from Westminster has been necessary to ensure abortion rights are realised here. Services in line with our new law have been a long time coming; commissioning must now be swift to bring an end to the unacceptable denial of healthcare.
“Early medical abortion access remains on a cliff edge. It is therefore vital that the Department of Health ensures regional interim services are sustained whilst the commissioning process is underway.
“Choice must be respected and protected – the only way to achieve this is through a service that is fully resourced and accessible to all who need it. Abortion is healthcare, the sooner it is embedded in our healthcare system and any remaining stigma around it removed, the better.”
Healthcare providers recently told The Independent women in Northern Ireland are routinely struggling to get the abortions they are now legally entitled to and many are calling services in floods of tears due to confusion about how they access terminations.
Ruairi Rowan, of Informing Choices Northern Ireland, praised Mr Brandon’s “long-overdue action to ensure that women and girls have access to a full range of abortion, contraception and counselling services”.
He added: “Immediate action must now be taken to provide the funding necessary to prevent the collapse of the central access point. Supporting the early medical abortion services that are already in place is essential.
“Informing Choices NI stand ready to work with the Department of Health to ensure the continued delivery of a regional high-quality information, support and referral service without further delay.”
Mara Clarke, who set up Abortion Support Network, told The Independent Mr Lewis’ announcement is “both a shame and a relief”.
She added: “A relief that hopefully, soon, people who need abortions in Northern Ireland will be able to get them easily and without needing to overcome a gauntlet of obstacles.
“And a shame because this should have been done years ago, before hundreds of women and girls were forced to travel abroad to access care both before and during a global pandemic.”
If you are based in Northern Ireland and have been affected by the issues raised in this story, you can speak to someone in confidence at the Abortion Support Network by calling 07897 611593 or emailing [email protected] or you can ringMSI Reproductive Choices on 0333 234 2184.