Women in Northern Ireland ‘will be able to have early abortions’ amid coronavirus lockdown

Maya Oppenheim
Women will be able to access abortion pills without having to go to a clinic or hospital during the coronavirus outbreak, the government has said: iStock

Women in Northern Ireland will be able to have early abortions due to an emergency response brought in to tackle the coronavirus crisis.

The new scheme, launched by sexual and reproductive health charity Informing Choices NI, will cover the first nine weeks and six days of pregnancy.

It comes after frontline service providers voiced fears women in Northern Ireland who are seeking abortions could be left with nowhere to go because of restrictions on travel during the coronavirus outbreak.

While abortion is now legal in the country, there are not yet any services that provide terminations — meaning women must travel to the mainland UK or the Republic of Ireland. This has become a far more difficult and dangerous journey in the wake of the Covid-19 emergency.

Dr Audrey Simpson, chair of Informing Choices NI, said: “We are delighted to provide this interim central access point to enable access to early medical abortion services in our local health trusts.”

Accessing terminations will involve attending a local clinic to take the first abortion pill, while the second set of pills can be taken at home, Dr Simpson added.

“We stand by women and girls and all pregnancy choices. Anyone can contact our helpline and be assured they will be offered non-directive information and, where necessary, referred on to services.”

The service will be rolled out via existing sexual and reproductive health services in the Belfast, Northern and Western health and social care trusts.

The termination of pregnancies became legal in Northern Ireland in October after MPs in Westminster voted by a landslide in July to give women the right to abortion — marking an end to the procedure being banned in almost all circumstances, even rape and incest, and women seeking a termination facing life imprisonment.

A long-awaited new legal framework around abortions took effect in Northern Ireland from the end of March but its rules on terminations have come under criticism from campaigners who recently told The Independent they are not “fit for purpose” and will put vulnerable women and girls at grave risk.

Amnesty International welcomed the new measures around early abortion but warned the government that this does eradicate the need for measures that allow both abortion pills to be consumed in the home.

Grainne Teggart, Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland campaign manager, said: “We welcome this extremely important step forward which will provide a much needed local pathway to early medical abortion services. It is vital during the current pandemic that everyone who needs this service has access to it.

“This does not remove the pressing need for measures that enable both abortion pills to be taken at home, which will ensure that people in vulnerable situations and those unable to travel have access to this healthcare. We repeat our call on the government for this to be delivered urgently.”

Women have to take the first of two abortion pills inside a health and social care service under current regulations in Northern Ireland – forcing them to travel to access the service.

Abortion providers across the UK argue the Covid-19 crisis means travelling for an abortion is no longer a safe or feasible option due to risks of women contracting the virus while travelling to have a termination.

Such journeys, which directly contravene government guidelines to stay at home, could lead to women potentially exposing themselves to coronavirus in crowded NHS waiting rooms where it is impossible to obey social-distancing rules.

This has meant measures to allow women to take both abortion pills at home are already in place in the rest of the UK where clinic closures have forced women to make longer trips than usual.

Additional reporting from wires

Read more

Coronavirus chaos ‘could force women have back-street abortions’