An unwanted service in Northern Ireland
The U.K. government pushes to expand abortion in the province despite local opposition
Before March 2020, the number of abortions in conservative Northern Ireland in a given year consistently stayed in the double digits. Women could get legal abortions only if the pregnancy put their lives at risk or posed serious threat to their physical health. But the U.K. Parliament in October 2019 voted to force Northern Ireland to legalize the procedure. The regulations officially passed on March 31, 2020.
Since then, staff at pro-life medical centers noticed an increase in women coming to them for help. They saw women coming out of healthcare facilities carrying their little brown bags of abortion pills. By March 2021, the region’s Department of Health announced that 1,345 abortions had taken place the previous year even though the Northern Ireland government at Stormont never officially implemented abortion services.
As abortion services in Northern Ireland continue to operate without the regional government’s support, Great Britain is again moving to usurp Stormont’s power and enforce an abortion regime. Pro-life organizations are pushing back to avoid an increase in abortion cases and keep out Great Britain’s radical agenda.
Under the 2020 regulations, abortion became legal in Northern Ireland for any reason during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and for physical or mental health reasons up to 24 weeks. Women can also abort up to the moment of birth if the child is unlikely to survive birth or has a serious disability. But Northern Ireland’s government-funded health boards implemented only limited abortion services using existing staff and funding. Women who want an abortion in the country call the group Informing Choices, which refers them to one of the local health trusts for abortion pills.
“At the moment, there’s no service available—no commissioned service—for abortion beyond that, for surgical abortion, for other abortions, because nobody wants to do it,” explained Dr. Andrew Cupples, a family doctor in Northern Ireland. He, like many other physicians in Northern Ireland, sees abortion as a poor substitute for actual healthcare in the already poorly resourced area. “The staff are not there to offer this service, and frankly the electorate doesn’t want it either,” he said. “That’s why the English Parliament feel that they should come in all guns blazing.”
More than half of Northern Ireland voters opposed the United Kingdom’s imposed expansion of legal abortion, according to a 2019 poll. A Journal for Medical Ethics study published in 2009 found that only 14 percent of medical students surveyed at Queen’s University Belfast identified as pro-abortion. Only 9 percent supported performing an abortion at a mother’s request. Those students became today’s doctors working as consultants and specialists, and Cupples said they just don’t have “the appetite” for abortion. He has heard talk of importing doctors from other parts of the United Kingdom to implement abortion services to make up for the shortage of willing healthcare workers.
For now, though, chemical abortions have the strongest foothold in Northern Ireland. “That was the easiest service to implement,” said Cupples. Nurses can dispense the drugs without a lot of extra training, and Cupples said the process is “quick and easy, sadly.” But three of Northern Ireland’s five health trusts have temporarily halted their abortion services in the last year because of a shortage of nurses and other medical resources. Services at the Western Health Trust are still suspended.
More comprehensive abortion services don’t have the necessary support from the Northern Ireland government. Because of the delay, the U.K. government in April voted to give new powers to the Northern Ireland Secretary of State Brandon Lewis to advance its pro-abortion agenda in the region. Stormont has until the summer recess to implement the services itself before Lewis enforces more changes.
With expanded abortion imminent one way or the other, pro-lifers disagree about whether they’d prefer to have Stormont or the U.K. government at Westminster oversee the change.
“It’s very difficult from a pro-life perspective because you don’t want the law to have changed,” said Dawn McAvoy, president of the Northern Ireland pro-life group Both Lives Matter. “You don’t want to tell the local assembly to commission services, but you know that if they don’t, Westminster will do it, and it will be worse than if it was done locally.”
Although pro-lifers in the country are taking different stances on the issue, McAvoy believes the safest route would be for Stormont to implement abortion services because Westminster’s agenda would be far more radical. The government in Westminster wants to impose recommendations from a 1982 United Nations committee known as CEDAW. They would require schools to teach comprehensive sex education classes that would instruct students about abortion access. The recommendations also allow for discriminatory abortions based on disability and in cases that threaten the mental health of the mother. Northern Ireland Health officials estimated in 2020 that the area could see as many as 6,500 abortions per year, about equivalent to the number of births the province sees in three months.
Pushing back on this aggressive expansion, pro-life groups this month have taken legal action to oppose giving powers to the secretary of state. “This is a disgraceful power grab by the Westminster government,” said Liam Gibson from the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children. “The politicians making the decisions about our abortion laws must be accountable to the people of Northern Ireland. This is essential if full legal protection for unborn children is ever to be restored.”
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