Free abortions for NI women in England
Funding to be made available through the Government Equalities Office
Women from Northern Ireland will no longer have to pay for abortions in England after the UK government announced it will fund the service.
The chancellor, Phillip Hammond, told the House of Commons about the decision, which was immediately confirmed in a letter sent to all MPs from women and equalities minister and education secretary Justine Greening.
'At present women from Northern Ireland are asked for payment, and from now on it is our proposal that this will no longer happen,' the letter read. 'This is clearly a sensitive issue and one which has direct implications for equality in treatment of women from Northern Ireland.
'Following discussions with the Department of Health, we will ensure these payments will be funded through the Government Equalities Office with additional funding. This will mean no English health service user is disadvantaged as a result of this change.
'Funding for the services will be made available through the Government Equalities Office, allowing the Department of Health to commission abortion services in England for those from Northern Ireland.'
Labour MP Stella Creasy had tabled an amendment supporting NI women having free abortions in England, which usually cost around £900 on a private basis, and was backed by more than 100 MPs across the Commons. The issue was due to be voted on as part of a debate on the Queen's Speech before the government's climbdown.
Abortion is legal in Britain under the Abortion Act 1967 but it is still a criminal offence in NI where terminations of pregnancy are only permitted if a woman's life is at risk, or there is a serious risk to her mental or physical health. It is not an offence for NI women to obtain abortions in Britain.
The NHS in England is entitled not to provide the abortion service to women ordinarily resident in NI free of charge given the UK's devolved scheme for health services. This was confirmed by the Supreme Court two weeks ago in a 'sharply divided' ruling.
The Scottish government had, however, been looking into the possibility of offering NI women NHS terminations, with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon keen to promote the rights of women to choose.
Writing in this week's Solicitors Journal, Kings Chambers barrister Anna Macey predicted that, with the Democratic Unionist Party's role in supporting the Tory government, it was unlikely that the issue of abortion funding would be out of the news for long.
Matthew Rogers is a legal reporter at Solicitors Journal