Full abortion services in Northern Ireland may not be ready in six months, doctor says

NI Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris announced on Friday that abortion services were to be commissioned.
Full abortion services in Northern Ireland may not be ready in six months, doctor says

By Jonathan McCambridge, PA

A doctor has said she does not think abortion services will be fully developed in Northern Ireland within the next six months.

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris announced on Friday he had written to the Department of Health to instruct them to formally commission abortion services in the region.

While Mr Heaton-Harris said he anticipated services becoming available in the coming months, consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist Dr Laura McLaughlin, who co-founded Doctors For Choice NI, a group which has campaigned for the provision of abortion services, said there were a lot of pathways which had to be established.

 

“Some things need to be ironed out. It is a full brand-new service being developed right from scratch and something that has never been done here in Northern Ireland,” she told the BBC Inside Politics programme.

“We have been given a timeframe of full surgical services by April 2023.

“It would be great if that is the case. We will have clinicians trained by that time.

“But it is not just the people involved in the operational side of the service, it is beyond that as well.

“The staff in the hospital, other things such as bereavement services, linking in with our perinatal mental health services

“There are a lot of pathways that need to be developed, whether they will be developed in the next six months, I don’t think so.”

“It is going to be an evolving process.”

Remembrance Sunday
Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris said he had instructed the Department of Health to set up abortion services (Liam McBurney/PA)

Northern Ireland’s abortion laws were liberalised in 2019 following legislation passed by Westminster at a time when the powersharing government at Stormont had collapsed.

While individual health trusts have offered limited services on an ad-hoc basis since then, Northern Ireland’s Department of Health never centrally commissioned the rollout of full services due to a political impasse at Stormont.

In May 2021, the Government intervened and laid regulations at Parliament that removed the need for the Department of Health to seek the approval of the wider executive to commission the services.

It also gave the Secretary of State the power to step in and commission the services himself – a step Mr Heaton-Harris took on Friday.

Dr McLaughlin said: “We are delighted with it. It is unfortunate it has to come from where it has come from through the Secretary of State, but at this stage the money will be coming to us and we are delighted it is here.

“We would have preferred it to come from the support of our Department of Health.

“This is a service that women have been waiting a long time for and that we as health professionals have been waiting for.

“We are now going to be able to properly do our job, with funding to back us.”

Ulster powersharing
Pro choice and anti abortion campaigners take part in separate demonstrations at Stormont in 2019 (Niall Carson/PA)

She added: “We are working with all the staff. We don’t want to make any staff feel uncomfortable potentially in participating in the service against their views.

“I don’t think we will be short of staff. We work on the nudge theory that over time people see the clients that are using the service, why they are using the service, that a lot of the clients are using this service for wanted pregnancies and they have been placed in a position they could never see happen to them.

“We have seen to date staff members coming on board, where at the beginning they may have not engaged in the service.”

Health is a devolved issue in Northern Ireland, but the region is currently without a health minister as the Stormont power sharing institutions are not operation after the DUP withdrew support as part of a protest against the post-Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol.

DUP MP Carla Lockhart has said Mr Heaton-Harris’s decision to press ahead with the commissioning of services is “fanning the flames of the crisis facing devolution in Northern Ireland”.

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