Secretary of State directs Northern Ireland’s Department of Health to make Abortion Services available

Brandon Lewis, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has issued a direction today (Thursday 22 July) to the Northern Ireland’s Department of Health, the Minister of Health, the Health and Social Care Board, and to the First and deputy First Minister, to commission and make abortion services available in Northern Ireland as soon as possible, and no later than 31 March 2022.

The Secretary of State also directed that the Department of Health should provide immediate funding support for interim provision of early medical abortion, which is at risk of collapse.

The direction is set out in a Written Ministerial Statement to Parliament, and follows on from the Northern Ireland Secretary’s statement in March this year when he laid before Parliament the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2021.

These regulations gives the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland the power to direct relevant Northern Ireland Ministers, departments and relevant health bodies to commission abortion services, consistent with the conditions set out in the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2020 which came into force on 31 March 2020. These provided a sustainable and legally robust framework for the delivery of abortion services that will become embedded into the health and social care system in Northern Ireland in the long term. This framework also ensures the health and safety of women and girls, and gives clarity and certainty to the healthcare profession, while remaining sensitive to the circumstances in Northern Ireland.

Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis said:

While I welcome the Department of Health recommencing work on the abortion services commissioning project, I remain extremely disappointed that they have not brought forward the full commissioning proposals. The lack of discussion on this important issue in the Executive Committee means that I have been left with no choice but to issue the direction.

I have a legal and moral obligation to ensure the women and girls in Northern Ireland are afforded their rights and can access healthcare, as set out in the 2020 Regulations.

I reiterate my thanks to the medical professionals and Informing Choices Northern Ireland who have ensured that women and girls have had some local access to abortion services in Northern Ireland, and the organisations that have supported this work.

Today’s announcement builds upon the UK Government’s commitment to deliver on its legal obligations and uphold the rights of women and girls in Northern Ireland by having access to high-quality service provision for abortion and post-abortion care locally in Northern Ireland.

In July 2019 Parliament placed the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland under a duty under section 9 of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act with respect to reform access to abortion services in Northern Ireland.

Despite making the Abortion Regulations in March 2020, services have still not been formally commissioned, supported or funded, and there has been no guidance issued or official support measures put in place. This is why the UK government introduced the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2021, which came into effect on 31 March 2021.

The Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2021 gave the UK Government a power to direct a Northern Ireland Minister, a Northern Ireland department and the Health and Social Care Board of the Public Health Agency to take action necessary to implement all the recommendations in paragraphs 85 and 86 of the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) Report.

The Regulations were debated on the 26 and 28 of April 2021 in the House of Commons and House of Lords respectively and both houses supported the regulations overwhelmingly, with a majority of 431 to 89 on a free vote in the Commons.