NI women not entitled to free NHS abortions in England says High Court
- 8 May 2014
- From the section Northern Ireland
Women from Northern Ireland are not legally entitled to free abortions on the NHS in England, the High Court in London has ruled.
The case was brought by a 17-year-old girl and her mother who live in Northern Ireland.
Unlike the rest of the UK, abortion is only allowed in very restricted circumstances in Northern Ireland.
More than 1,000 women each year travel from NI to have an abortion in other parts of the UK.
Those who do travel must pay for their transport, accommodation and the cost of the procedure.
The court heard the total cost is around £900.
The case was brought by the girl, who was 15 at the time (claimant A), and whose identity cannot be revealed for legal reasons.
After becoming pregnant, she travelled to England with her mother (claimant B) in October 2012.
The court was told her mother had struggled to part-raise funds to pay for her daughter to have a termination privately in England.
Abortion law in Northern Ireland meant it was impossible to have the termination there.
In his judgement, Mr Justice King, said the differences in the legal position had "not surprisingly led to a steady stream" of pregnant women from Northern Ireland to England to access abortion services not available to them at home.
But he ruled that Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt's duty to promote a comprehensive health service in England "is a duty in relation to the physical and mental health of the people of England", and that duty did not extend "to persons who are ordinarily resident in Northern Ireland".
The judge, in his ruling, said that devolutionary powers have to be taken into consideration.
Because Northern Ireland is not covered by the 1967 Abortion Act, which applies in the rest of the UK, the judge has ruled this was not a discrimination issue.
Angela Jackman, who represented the girl and her mother, said she it was "very disappointing" that the court had not found in favour of her clients.
"This is an important issue for thousands of women in Northern Ireland, and there have been recent calls in parliament for changes in the law.
"Why should women from Northern Ireland have to pay for this health service in England despite being UK citizens?
"And what are women in Northern Ireland who need terminations supposed to do if they cannot afford to pay privately for the service in England?"
Ms Jackman said it was for these reasons that they would be taking the case to the Court of Appeal.
The laws covering abortion in Northern Ireland are the 1861 Offences against the Person Act, and the Criminal Justice act from 1945. It is a criminal offence, which carries a life sentence.
The only exceptions are to save a woman's life, or if there is a risk of permanent and serious damage to her mental or physical health.
Currently, the Department of Health in Northern Ireland are reviewing the guidelines on abortion which were recently put out to consultation.
Northern Ireland's justice minister announced last December that he was going to consult on changing abortion laws in Northern Ireland to allow women carrying babies with fatal foetal abnormalities to have a termination.
Other grounds, such as abortion in rape or incest cases, are also expected to be covered.
Ann Furedi, chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, which assists women from Northern Ireland, said: "We are saddened but not surprised by this decision that women from Northern Ireland are not entitled to NHS-funded abortion treatment in England.
"But let this ruling serve as a reminder of the appalling fact that women from Northern Ireland are forced to travel to England everyday to access a fundamental healthcare service that they should be able to obtain at home, or take their chances by illegally buying abortion medication online.
"Outlawing abortion does not prevent women having abortions, it simply increases the physical, financial and emotional burden of obtaining the care they need.
"If women from Northern Ireland cannot get NHS-funded abortion care in England then surely the time has come to ensure they can get that care at home."
Liam Gibson, from the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, welcomed the ruling.
"This decision had it gone the other way would certainly have led to more abortions taking place which would have been a bad thing for both women and children. It would also have had serious implications for the value of our devolved institutions," he said.
Figures released by the Northern Ireland Department of Health revealed that 51 terminations were performed in NI hospitals in 2013.
According to the figures, that was an increase of 16 over the previous year.
Department of Health statistics in England for 2011, show that the vast majority of the more than 1,000 women from Northern Ireland who had abortions in England, were in fee-charging independent clinics.
Only five were provided free of charge on the NHS.
In England, Wales and Scotland access to abortion is covered by the 1967 Abortion Act.
That permits terminations up to 24 weeks of pregnancy on grounds that include risk to the physical or mental health of the woman or existing children in the family, and abnormalities that could lead to a child being "seriously handicapped".
It is also allowed over 24 weeks if a woman's life or health is at serious risk, and for serious disabilities.