By Rebecca Black, PA
Stormont’s Minister for Health has been urged to act after a charity service providing an access point for early medical abortion folded due to lack of funding.
Informing Choices NI said that with “deep reluctance” it is withdrawing the service it has run for 18 months in the absence of commissioned services.
An alternative service will be provided by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service from Monday.
Northern Ireland’s once strict abortion laws were liberalised in 2019 following legislation passed by Westminster at a time when devolution had collapsed.
After 18 months of providing the central access point into early medical abortion care in Northern Ireland it is with deep reluctance that we will today be withdrawing our service. Full statement below. pic.twitter.com/1HtjmThCw7
— Informing Choices NI (@ICNI2019) October 1, 2021
However, Stormont’s Department of Health has yet to centrally commission full services due to an impasse within the devolved administration.
The anti-abortion DUP has blocked consideration of central commissioning at the Stormont Executive.
This forced the government to introduce new powers to allow Secretary of State Brandon Lewis to intervene on the devolved issue to formally direct Stormont to roll out the services.
He has used the new powers to direct ministers in Belfast to take the steps necessary to roll out abortion services across the region, with a deadline of the end of March 2022.
Informing Choices NI previously warned it could not continue to provide the service unless interim funding was provided.
On Friday morning, the charity announced it would be withdrawing the service from 5pm.
“The service has operated outside of a commissioned framework for 18 months. As a small charity with limited resources this placed considerable pressures on the organisation,” they said.
“ICNI previously warned the service could not continue unless interim funding was secured whilst the commissioning of services was under way.
“Regretfully additional funding has not been provided by the Department of Health. Therefore it is with deep reluctance that we have had no option but to take this action.
“ICNI are extremely proud of the role we played to ensure that early medical abortion services were accessible in Northern Ireland and will continue to advocate for the urgent commissioning of locally available services. We will also continue to support women through difficult times with our pregnancy counselling service.
“From Monday October 4, anyone wishing to access these services should contact the British Pregnancy Advisory Service on 03457 304030.”
Grainne Teggart, Northern Ireland campaigns manager for Amnesty UK, has urged Stormont's Minster for Health Robin Swann to act.
“Despite Westminster directing the Department of Health to commission services and calling for funds to be made available for interim arrangements, the health minister once again failed to act,” she said.
“In doing so Robin Swann continues to neglect the needs of women and our healthcare professionals.
“It is the minister’s job to remove barriers to healthcare, not create them. Choice must be respected and protected — the only way to achieve this is through a service that is fully resourced and accessible to all who need it.
“We call on Health Minister and Secretary of State to ensure the commissioning process is swift and clear pathways to compassionate care are established.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Health said it is considering a funding request.
“A funding request was received in August and officials have been considering this, in line with departmental approval processes, with the intention of bringing a paper to the Executive on funding,” they said.
“In the interim, Informing Choices NI signalled their intention to withdraw the current service from 1st October 2021 due to funding issues.
“The department has now been informed by Trusts that an alternative interim advice and referral service has been established, at no additional cost, through the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS).
"This interim service from BPAS will ensure continuity of advice and referral services, pending wider decisions on the commissioning of abortion services in NI.
“In line with the Secretary of State’s direction, the department is preparing proposals for Executive consideration on the commissioning of abortion services in Northern Ireland.
"These proposals will be finalised as soon as possible, with submission to the Executive expected by late 2021/early 2022.”