The British government on Thursday directed authorities in Northern Ireland to make abortion services available there by the end of March 2022, bypassing objections from some socially conservative politicians in the British-run province.
Britain’s parliament voted in 2019 to legalise abortion in Northern Ireland, at the time one of the last regions in Western Europe with a ban. This year the British assembly handed itself the power to compel the devolved provincial government in Belfast to implement more liberal abortion services amid opposition from some senior Northern Irish ministers.
While Belfast has permitted early medical abortion at up to 10 weeks, it has not yet implemented the laws allowing terminations without restriction up to 12 weeks, or with no time limit in certain cases.
This has forced some women to continue to travel to other parts of the United Kingdom to obtain terminations.
“The lack of discussion on this important issue in the Executive Committee (Northern Irish cabinet) means that I have been left with no choice but to issue the direction,” Britain’s Northern Ireland minister, Brandon Lewis, said in a statement.
“I have a legal and moral obligation to ensure the women and girls in Northern Ireland are afforded their rights and can access healthcare, as set out in the regulations.”
Lewis also directed Northern Ireland’s health department to provide immediate funding support for the interim provision of early medical abortion, which he said is at risk of collapse due to a lack of resources.
Until lawmakers in London stepped in, Northern Ireland was the only part of the United Kingdom where laws forbade abortion except where a mother’s life was at risk.
Previous attempts in the local assembly to follow the recent liberalising of abortion laws in the once staunchly conservative Irish Republic were blocked by the conservative Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Northern Ireland’s largest party.
The DUP still opposes the move. Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland’s first minister at the time, called on London in March to “back off” in its attempts to bypass the devolved government and force the region to expand access to abortion.
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