The Irish health minister has vowed that Northern Irish women will be able to access abortion services in the Republic of Ireland. Abortion remains illegal in Northern Ireland unless the pregnancy risks the woman’s life or health.
Women seeking an abortion in Northern Ireland currently have to travel to other countries in the UK in order to access services, as the Republic of Ireland only overturned its abortion ban in May this year after voting overwhelmingly in favour of the referendum.
Health minister Simon Harris told Irish broadcaster RTE that the May referendum would ensure the Republic is able to provide compassionate care to women, and they have an obligation to extend these services to Northern Irish women.
According to the UK department of health, over 900 women travelled from Northern Ireland to England for an abortion in 2017, a 25% rise on the year before and the highest figure since 2011.
Harris spoke to pro-choice activists from Northern Ireland yesterday, telling them it was a “matter of great regret” that they do not have access to healthcare in crisis pregnancy situations. Harris said he was hopeful that terminations would be able to take place from January, but furthered that women from Northern Ireland would have to pay for the service.
This commitment from the Republic of Ireland is an important step forward for women who seek abortions across the border. But the fact remains that Northern Irish women are still having to travel at a traumatic time, and having to factor in travel costs as well as the abortion itself. They should have the option of obtaining a legal and safe termination in their own country.
Amnesty International spokesperson Grainne Teggart called on the Northern Ireland secretary and British government to prioritise women’s healthcare and decriminalise abortion. In a statement, she said: “[It] serves to underscore the absurd position that women find themselves in where they will soon board trains for these services or continue to go to the rest of the UK but still cannot access safe and legal abortions in Northern Ireland.”
In October, the House of Commons voted in favour of a bill proposed by Labour MP Diana Johnson to legalise abortion in Northern Ireland. The proposal drew support from various leading ministers, including international development secretary Penny Mordaunt.
However, the likelihood of the bill becoming law is uncertain due to the Conservative party’s parliamentary majority depending on the Democratic Unionist Party, who are opposed to abortion-law reform.
But what we should take away from the Irish referendum earlier this year is that change is coming in the region, however slowly. If British and Irish leaders continue to pressure the Northern Irish government, hopefully, in time, we’ll be one step closer to enabling women’s bodily autonomy across the British Isles.