Northern Ireland’s human rights commission is taking legal action against the United Kingdom’s government for its alleged failure to provide safe and accessible abortion services for the region. The right to abortion has remained a legal entitlement since such services were legalized in the country last year in March. However, experts suggest that these rights have been directly undermined as a result of North Ireland’s Health Minister, Secretary, and Executive’s failures to uphold vital abortion care via adequate commission services and funding.
Patrick Corrigan, Northern Ireland’s director of Amnesty International, stated, “The fact that the South Eastern Trust has had to stop this service is a direct consequence of Minister Robin Swann’s disastrous failure to commission and fund these health services.”
As of January 5th, two of North Ireland’s Health Trusts (South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust) have ceased to offer referrals for their abortion service. Following the Department of Health’s failure to commission these services, health trusts have been left to absorb the entirety of costs involved with procedures – making staying afloat a highly difficult financial endeavor, as proven by the series of recent disbandings. According to Amnesty International, this failure has affected over a third of million people across the Northern Irish counties of Antrim and Down.
As a consequence of the lack of services, women in affected areas have been left to resort to unregulated means, such as ordering abortion pills online and administering them without medical supervision. In addition, many women have reportedly been forced to travel away from their home region to receive access to functioning services, where they are put at high risk for COVID-19 exposure.
Voicing his frustration about the circumstances, Corrigan said, “The Minister has created a postcode lottery for healthcare by forcing women to travel in the midst of a pandemic. At the very time when government is telling people not to travel, this is nothing less than a scandal.”
There is also reason to believe the situation will significantly worsen in months to come. The limited number of ad-havoc medical clinics, established early in the pandemic, is expected to flounder, as the small group of health professionals running them return to their pre-pandemic roles.
The Northern Ireland Executive and Department of Health denied their responsibility to generate abortion services.
“We have entered a Kafkaesque world where the NIO [Northern Ireland Office] claims it is taking all reasonable steps to enable a service, the Department of Health claims it cannot get agreement to commission and fund a service through the NI Executive, and the NI Executive says it is a matter for the Department of Health,” Les Allamby said. Allamby is the head of Northern Ireland’s Human Rights Commission, the plaintiff in the legal case. “It is a game of ‘pass the parcel’ where the music never stops, except it is not a game but an issue of women’s health and wellbeing.”
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