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Northern Irish Women Won Access to Free Abortions, But What Comes Next?

After decades of campaigning, abortion activists finally secured a major victory—granting Northern Irish women access to free abortions in mainland Britain. But more clarity is needed on how it will work in practice.
Sirin Kale
as told to Sirin Kale
Photo by Aila Images via Stocksy

After decades of campaigning, last week Northern Irish abortion activists finally secured a major victory. In the space of 24 hours, the British government changed a long-standing policy of making Northern Irish women pay for their own abortions—a policy they'd affirmed only a month previously—and agreed to fund abortions for Northern Irish women traveling to mainland Britain for treatment.

Their decision came after an amendment to the Queen's Speech tabled by Labour MP Stella Creasy threatened the government's legislative agenda, and risked a government defeat.


But such is the speed with which the government has pirouetted 360 degrees on a long-standing policy, it is still relatively unclear what will happen next. Northern Irish women, abortion providers, and charities alike are currently struggling to make sense of the proposals. Meanwhile, advocates worry that women needing urgent abortion may be delaying vital healthcare decisions.

Until now, Northern Irish women—despite paying the same taxes as everyone else in the UK, taxes which go towards our healthcare system—have been denied abortions in all but the most extreme circumstances. In 2016, 724 women were forced to travel to the mainland for care. It's an exhausting, costly, and degrading process, and that's just for those with the means to travel.

In 2015, Belfast native Lucy* received the news that her much-wanted pregnancy was not viable due to fatal fetal abnormality—her child would not survive birth, or if it did, it would only be expected to live a few weeks at best. As abortion due to fatal fetal abnormality is illegal in Northern Ireland, medical staff could not help. Lucy and her partner were on their own.

Watch: The Unstoppable Wendy Davis on the Fight for Abortion Rights

"We felt cut adrift from the support and care we desperately needed in the worst moments of our lives," she recalls. After booking a termination in England, Lucy had to travel away from family and friends for the procedure. "I cried myself to sleep the night before."


The cost of Lucy's late-stage termination? £1,100, payable upfront, plus £1,400 in hotels and accommodation costs (due to complications from the termination, Lucy's husband had to spend almost a week moving between hotels while she recuperated in an NHS hospital, before they could fly home.)

Following the government's U-turn on funding abortion care, women like Lucy now won't have to pay up for their treatment. But that doesn't change things for the many women who don't have the financial means or ability to travel. While terminations will now be free, flights to the UK, accommodation and other associated costs won't be covered by the government.

Read more: What It's Like Helping Women Get the Abortions They Need

"Free abortions in England are great—but they won't help women who don't have any childcare, who can't get away from their abusive partners to go meet a girlfriend for a drink let alone to travel to England for an abortion, and won't help women who are undocumented and need papers to travel," explains Mara Clarke of the Abortion Support Network.

"I'm one of the lucky ones who was able to make it, who could run up a credit card debt and worry about it later, who had a supportive family, who wasn't dealing with an abusive situation, who wasn't trapped," Lucy agrees.

In a letter announcing the new policy, Equalities Minister Justine Greening said that abortions would be funded "through the Government Equalities Office with additional funding." But the letter didn't outline how women would, in practice, access this funding.


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Meanwhile, private abortion providers are stepping up to the plate. On Monday, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service announced they'd be waiving payments from Northern Irish women. "At the moment it's all rather unclear," a BPAS spokesperson explained over email, "and in the meantime we've taken the decision to stop charging NI women because we are concerned that otherwise they may choose to delay treatment while they are waiting."

But not all women can have abortions in BPAS clinics. Women with pre-existing medical conditions such as epilepsy or diabetes need to be referred to NHS hospitals. As yet, the government has not clarified how these referrals will take place.

Marie Stopes, the UK's other main abortion provider, also hasn't yet waived their fees. "We are already in discussion with the government over how to implement this change and ensure that women from Northern Ireland can start accessing abortion services in England, free at the point of care," a Marie Stopes spokesperson said. "It is vital that the change is implemented as soon as possible, so that women seeking abortion are clear on their options."

Informally, advocates told Broadly that they would be attending a government meeting later this week with abortion providers after which they're hoping for more clarity from the government. The Government Equalities Office did not return Broadly's request for comment.

*Name has been changed.