Full abortion services are to be formally set up in Northern Ireland, the government has announced. Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris said he had written to the Department of Health in the region to commission the services in line with his statutory obligations.
Northern Ireland’s abortion laws were liberalised in 2019 following legislation passed by Westminster at a time when the power sharing government at Stormont had collapsed. In May 2021, the Government intervened and laid regulations at Parliament that removed the need for the Department of Health to seek the approval of the wider executive to commission the services.
It also gave the Secretary of State the power to step in and commission the services himself if the devolved health minister failed to do so. Mr Heaton-Harris said the formal commissioning would enable health and social care trusts to recruit and train staff in the coming months.
In a statement the department of health said it acknowledged the “legal requirements placed on it”. The statement added: “The department has been working closely with the Northern Ireland Office on the planned commissioning of abortion services in Northern Ireland.
“Today’s legal instruction on commissioning and the ringfencing of funding will mean that HSC Trusts will have the necessary resources to ensure a full range of abortion services will be available in NI, including putting in place the necessary staffing and training required.”
What has Chris Heaton-Harris said?
He said: “The UK Government is steadfast in its commitment to ensuring women of Northern Ireland have access to safe, high-quality and local abortion services.
“As Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my officials at the Northern Ireland Office and I will continue to work with the Department of Health and healthcare professionals to ensure a range of abortion services become readily available across all health and social care trusts in the coming months.”
The Northern Ireland Office said it remained the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Executive to fund the services. It said funding was ring-fenced for abortion services in the department’s budget.
When will the services be available?
Heaton-Harris said he anticipated services becoming available in the coming months. While individual health trusts have offered limited services on an ad-hoc basis since then, Northern Ireland’s Department of Health never centrally commissioned the rollout of full services due to a political impasse at Stormont.
What has been the reaction?
Health is a devolved issue in Northern Ireland, but the region is currently without a health minister as the Stormont power sharing institutions are not operation after the DUP withdrew support as part of a protest against the post-Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol.
DUP MP Carla Lockhart said Mr Heaton-Harris’s decision to press ahead with the commissioning of services is “fanning the flames of the crisis facing devolution in Northern Ireland”.
She said: “Amid the rising cost of living and the government’s failure to deliver energy support payments to households in Northern Ireland, it is a matter of deep regret that the Secretary of State can find the money to promote the taking of life.
“Pressing ahead with this divisive policy is a further attack on the principles of devolution. Abortion is a devolved matter and future decisions should be taken by local ministers.
“The point has been made forcibly and repeatedly to the Secretary of State and his predecessor that action in this area undermines the devolution settlement. That is only underscored further by the Government’s deliberate inaction across many other areas.”