The government has agreed to fund abortions for women from Northern Ireland to head off an embarrassing parliamentary defeat.
Labour’s Stella Creasy forced a vote by tabling an amendment to the Queen’s Speech, which sets out the government’s legislative plans for the next two years. Hours before the Commons was due to vote on the amendment, the government announced that women who travel from Northern Ireland to England for abortions will no longer have to pay for them.
“At present women from Northern Ireland are asked for payment, and from now on it is our proposal that this will no longer happen,” Justine Greening, the equalities minister, said in a letter to MPs.
The decision staved off the possibility of the government being defeated on the Queen's Speech. After meeting Greening, Creasy said she was satisfied that the government was committed to the change of policy and withdrew her amendment.
"Let us send a message to women everywhere that in this parliament their voices will be heard and their rights upheld," Creasy told the Commons.
The Labour MP had called on women in England to help women in Northern Ireland access NHS-funded abortion by writing to their MPs in support of her amendment to the government’s legislative programme.
Responding to the news, Grainne Teggart, Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland Campaign Manager, said:
“We’re pleased to see the Government concede on this issue. This is an important step for women’s rights and towards ending the ludicrous situation where women and girls in Northern Ireland are denied the right to healthcare that those in the rest of the UK can take for granted.
“However, 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."
In a separate development, the Court of Appeal in Belfast has ruled that it is up to the Stormont assembly to decide on abortion law in Northern Ireland.
Two years ago, the High Court ruled that the law in Northern Ireland breached the European Convention on Human Rights by not allowing abortion even in the case of rape, incest, or where the foetus has a fatal defect.
Power-sharing in Northern Ireland is currently suspended, with a deadline to reach an agreement expiring at 4pm today.
Abortion is currently illegal in almost all circumstances in Northern Ireland, where the Abortion Act 1967 – the law that allows access to abortion in the rest of the UK – was never applied.
Currently, women who travel from Northern Ireland to access abortion in the UK are not entitled to receive the service free of charge via the NHS, despite being UK taxpayers.
Creasy put forward the cross-party amendment to the Queen's Speech – which would reverse the government ban on NHS-funded abortion provision in England for Northern Irish residents – last week. She said it was out of "respect" for the human rights of Northern Irish women.
"This is the only healthcare service as far as I can see that’s denied on the basis of residency," Creasy said. "If a Northern Irish woman comes here and needs her tonsils out, that’s not a problem, but an abortion is somehow different."
Earlier this month, the Supreme Court rejected an appeal by a mother and daughter from Northern Ireland to receive funding for an abortion, after they paid £900 for the service in England when the daughter became pregnant aged 15. Health secretary Jeremy Hunt sought to block the appeal out of "respect" for Northern Irish law.
Alongside the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), one of the UK's biggest providers of abortions, which offers terminations on behalf of the NHS, Creasy is asking women in England and Wales to write to their MP urging them to back the amendment, using an online form.
Creasy disputed Hunt's suggestion that allowing Northern Irish women to access abortion in England and Wales undermined their devolved government in any way.
"We’ve made a decision as a country and abortion should be available – Northern Ireland has made a different decision but this is about what happens on our shores," she told us.
She added that the Supreme Court ruling did not make sense, given that the aim of the National Healthcare Act – which determines what services should be available on the NHS – was to prevent illness. Abortion is allowed in the UK if two doctors believe that the pregnancy could cause physical or emotional harm to the mother.
"We know that the whole point about offering abortion is that it prevents distress," Creasy said. "The amendment and the work that we’re doing is to say we think this needs resolving, and if you don’t resolve it, we stand ready to support legislation to resolve it."
Clare Murphy, director of external affairs at BPAS, pointed out the inconsistency in the UK government offering reproductive care in countries where abortion is banned as part of international aid, but not offering NHS abortion services to Northern Irish women out of respect for their government.
“The UK rightly provides aid to ensure women in developing countries have access to safe abortion care," Murphy said. "We do this because we know giving women the ability to make decisions about childbearing and access to safe services to exercise those choices is fundamental to women’s health and equality.
"We ask simply that the same principle and the same access to safe services is afforded to women from our own country."
Goretti Horgan, a spokesperson for the campaign group Alliance for Choice Northern Ireland, highlighted the disproportionate affect the current law had on poor women in Northern Ireland. "The poorest women, struggling to bring up their children particularly in times of austerity, have to go into debt, sell possessions, and deprive their children of basics in order to pay for a legal abortion which would be free on the NHS if they lived in any other part of the 'United Kingdom'," she said.
The Family Planning Association also supported Creasy's amendment, noting that preventing women in Northern Ireland from accessing free, safe, and legal abortion simple leads them to explore other options.
"The alternative taken by some women seeking abortion in Northern Ireland is to buy medical abortion pills online, which is illegal and leaves them vulnerable to prosecution," Ruairi Rowan, senior advocacy officer for the FPA in Northern Ireland, said.
With prime minister Theresa May having drawn up an electoral agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party, Creasy said it was more important than ever to raise this issue – so that the abortion rights of women in Northern Ireland weren't ignored as a way of appeasing the DUP.
"It’s clear this debate is coming towards us," Creasy said. "Those of us that believe that women’s fundamental human rights involve being able to make choices about their own bodies and not having someone else make that choice for them need to be ready to stand up for that principle."