BELFAST (Reuters) - Northern Ireland authorities on Thursday gave the green light for the rollout of abortion services, activists and leading doctors said, although it was unclear when the first procedures would take place.
While abortion was decriminalised last year, the British region’s health ministry missed an April 1 deadline to begin providing wider access to terminations, blaming the pressure the coronavirus has placed on services.
That left the British government’s Northern Ireland Office advising women to travel to England for an abortion even though the pandemic has closed air traffic, leaving women facing an 8-hour ferry journey from Belfast to Liverpool.
In a statement on Thursday, the health ministry said medical professionals “may now terminate pregnancies lawfully on health and social care premises,” but the ministry did not provide details on where and how women could access abortion services.
Former director of the Royal College of Midwives in Northern Ireland Breedagh Hughes told Reuters that her understanding was that teams of medics were ready to run the services from Friday, but women would need to contact local health organisations or support groups for details.
The Northern Ireland committee of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists welcomed the move.
“We are aware of women seeking an abortion in very difficult circumstances, including those with an underlying medical condition who cannot travel and others in extremely vulnerable situations,” committee chair Carolyn Bailie said in a statement.
“We welcome the advice that those women can now be cared for within Northern Ireland.”
The Alliance For Choice advocacy group said the new advice was a huge development but noted that women unable to leave their homes due to the coronavirus restrictions would struggle to access services as regulations state a first course of abortion pills must be taken in a clinic.
The delay in rolling out services prompted Britain’s leading provider of abortions to step in earlier on Thursday and say it will offer abortion pills to women in Northern Ireland by post.
Some local charities have been trying to source abortion pills and offering telephone consultations with doctors abroad. But the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), which books abortions for Northern Irish women in England, has far more resources to offer the service.
BPAS said it had been informed about two women attempting suicide because they could not access abortion care in Northern Ireland.
Doctors can prescribe pills via telephone in the rest of the United Kingdom, a measure introduced in response to coronavirus lockdown. Socially conservative Christian members of the Belfast regional assembly voted down a similar proposal on Monday.
The British parliament bypassed a years-long veto from those politicians in Belfast last July to bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the United Kingdom, where abortion has been legal for decades.
Some lawmakers remained sceptical about Thursday’s changes and demanded clear information on how women access services.
“Today’s announcement further muddies the waters,” Green Party leader and long-time abortion rights advocate Clare Bailey told Reuters.
“There is a maze for women to get through. The executive have acknowledged the legal change but have not implemented services properly. The fight for abortion rights in Northern Ireland has not ended.”
Writing by Conor Humphries and Padraic Halpin; Editing by Alexandra Hudson and Cynthia Osterman