Campaigners in Northern Ireland are closely watching US moves to restrict abortion, particularly concerns that women would now have to travel across states for terminations.
Abortion was only decriminalized in the nation in 2019 — 42 years after terminations were made legal up to 24 weeks in most circumstances in the rest of the UK, but despite legislation, lack of government funding and political wrangling have meant women are still having to travel to the British mainland for abortions.
Currently, there are still no surgical abortion services available in Northern Ireland and no options for abortion after 10 weeks of pregnancy.
Last year, 161 women crossed the Irish Sea to England and Wales for an abortion, British government statistics published last month showed.
“The fact that 161 people traveled last year is totally unacceptable, even one should be a scandal,” Dani Anderson from the Abortion Support Network said.
The US Supreme Court decision to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling which enshrined the right to abortion prompted some states to introduce a ban.
That has raised fears women from low-income, rural and ethnic minority backgrounds would be hit hardest if they have to travel.
In Northern Ireland, campaigners say this is already a reality.
Grainne Teggart, deputy program director for Amnesty International in Northern Ireland, said traveling for an abortion had not been “safe or viable” for many during the COVID-19 pandemic.
From a healthcare perspective, “later trimester abortions are more complex, so it is the women who should be traveling the least who are being made to travel,” said Naomi Connor, co-convener at the grassroots campaign group Alliance for Choice.
Healthcare is a devolved issue for the Northern Ireland Assembly in Belfast, but the main pro-UK party is currently refusing to join the power-sharing executive between unionists and nationalists in a row over post-Brexit trade.
Northern Ireland Minister of Health Robin Swann claims he is unable to commission full abortion services without a functioning executive.
Still, there is renewed hope that abortion services might finally be commissioned, despite the current political paralysis.
Lawmakers in the British parliament in London recently voted to implement access to services in Northern Ireland, passing the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2022. They allow British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis to step in, controversially overriding the authority of the devolved administration in Belfast.
Teggart welcomed the regulations as a “very necessary move.”
“For the health minister [Swann] it is a damning indictment on his failure to prioritize the health of women and girls,” she said.
Lewis wants services to be “delivered and available to all across Northern Ireland as soon as possible.”
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