By Nick Lester, PA Political Staff
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis will take action to ensure the full provision of abortion services in the region unless progress is made at Stormont, the UK Government has warned.
Tory frontbencher Viscount Younger of Leckie branded the current situation “not acceptable” and said it was “very distressing” nearly 400 women and girls had to travel to the British mainland for an abortion last year during the coronavirus pandemic, despite a change in the law.
Abortion laws in the region were liberalised by MPs at Westminster in 2019 at a time when powersharing in Northern Ireland had collapsed.
The news rules came into operation a year ago and, while individual health trusts have been offering services on an ad hoc basis, the Department of Health has yet to centrally commission the services on a region-wide basis due to an ongoing impasse within the Executive.
Regulations were approved at Westminster in April giving Mr Lewis the power to order this to happen in the event of the failure to make terminations widely available in the region.
The anti-abortion DUP has previously warned such an intervention would represent a breach of the devolution settlement.
Responding to a parliamentary written question, Lord Younger said in 2020 there were 371 abortions in England and Wales for women from Northern Ireland.
He added: “I would note that over 1,100 women and girls have been able to access local abortion services since April last year — and this should not be overlooked at a time where the services have not been formally commissioned.
“It is, however, very distressing to hear that even throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, some women and girls have still been forced to travel, at a time where it is even more crucial for local access to healthcare to be available.”
He went on: “We put on record our thanks to the medical professionals who have ensured that women and girls have had some access to abortion services in Northern Ireland to date, and the organisations that have supported this work.
“However, progress must be made towards properly commissioning services so that safe, local abortion services are fully available as a healthcare service in Northern Ireland. The current situation is not acceptable.
“If there continues to be no progress, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will issue a direction using his powers under the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2021, to ensure that services are commissioned and delivered.”