The UK Government Equalities Office has today committed to paying for travel and accommodation expenses for Northern Ireland women from lower income backgrounds who travel to England to access an abortion. The announcement, made in the week of the 50th anniversary of the Abortion Act 1967, extends the commitment to provide free abortion services on the NHS, which was made in June. Humanists UK welcomes the news.
Today’s announcement sees the UK Government set out details of its scheme which is due to come fully into operation by the end of the year. The Scottish and Welsh Governments have also committed to providing free abortion services on the NHS. The Scottish Government is also intending to commit to providing some travel and accommodation costs, while the Welsh Government is yet to make an announcement.
Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented: ‘This commitment to provide free abortion services for women from Northern Ireland, and to pay the expenses of those from lower income backgrounds, represents the most significant step ever taken in enabling Northern Ireland women to be able to access abortions. The UK, Scottish, and Welsh Governments are to be commended for their decision to open up access in this way.
‘However, this news does not mean that Northern Ireland women are able to access abortion services at home, in Northern Ireland. Instead they must face the difficulty and distress of travelling to another country to do so. That is why further reform is so important. This week’s Supreme Court case, which seeks to extend abortion services in Northern Ireland itself to those in the gravest of need, is an important start. We very much hope the court makes the correct ruling.’
Northern Ireland abortion laws explained
This Friday sees the 50th anniversary of the Abortion Act 1967. That Act enabled access to reproductive services in a wide variety of circumstances in England, Scotland, and Wales, but it was excluded from applying in Northern Ireland.
The law governing abortion in Northern Ireland is one of the most restrictive in Europe, such that abortion is unlawful in all but the most extreme cases. The criminal sanctions imposed are amongst the harshest in the world, with the maximum sentence being life imprisonment. A termination is only lawful when it constitutes a threat to a woman’s life or a serious, permanent, or long term effect on her physical or mental health. This week’s case seeks to extend that to pregnancies involving sexual crime and serious or fatal foetal abnormalities. The case succeeded succeed at the High Court in 2015, only to then be overturned by the Court of Appeal this June. Humanists UK has intervened in the case.
In a separate case in June, in a 3-2 ruling, the Supreme Court dismissed a challenge to the fact that women from Northern Ireland couldn’t access abortion services for free on the NHS in England. Humanists UK intervened in that case too. However, having won the case, subsequently the Secretary of State for Health in England chose to reverse his policy on the matter, and allow free abortions on the NHS after all. The Scottish and Welsh governments then did the same. Today sees the UK Government announce financial assistance for travel and accommodation to England for those who need it most.
But this reversal still doesn’t mean Northern Ireland women can access free abortions in Northern Ireland itself, hence the need for the other case.
For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson on firstname.lastname@example.org or 0781 55 89 636, or Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator on email@example.com or on 07470 395090.
Humanists UK has long campaigned in defence of women’s reproductive rights and has intervened in other cases concerning Northern Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws. Humanists UK’s policies and approach to abortion are informed by its ethical position which supports a woman’s right to dignity and personal autonomy and accordingly to access a safe and lawful abortion with appropriate secular counselling and after-care should she choose to do so. Humanists UK has successfully campaigned to oppose changes to the law in England and Wales that seek to restrict access to abortion. It is a member of the Voice for Choice coalition, the We Trust Women campaign, and the Back Off campaign. Its section Northern Ireland Humanists is a member of the Trust Women coalition, coordinated by Alliance for Choice. In September 2017 Humanists UK spoke out against the restrictive abortion laws enforced in many countries around the world as part of the 36th regular session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva.
Read more about Humanists UK’s campaigns work on abortion: https://humanists.uk/campaigns/public-ethical-issues/sexual-and-reproductive-rights/
Read the Government’s announcement: http://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/written-questions-answers-statements/written-statement/Commons/2017-10-23/HCWS192/
At Humanists UK, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. Our work brings non-religious people together to develop their own views, helping people be happier and more fulfilled in the one life we have. Through our ceremonies, education services, and community and campaigning work, we strive to create a fair and equal society for all.
Humanists UK recently changed its name from the British Humanist Association: https://humanists.uk/2017/05/22/bha-becomes-humanists-uk/
Northern Ireland Humanists is a part of Humanists UK, working with the Humanist Association of Ireland.