Belfast Telegraph

A cynical act by frantic Tories, but move over free abortions for NI women is not before time

Government's decision welcome, but situation at home on terminations must also be addressed, says Fionola Meredith

There is a certain poetic justice in the Tory government's sudden decision to permit Northern Irish women to access free abortions on the NHS in England. That's because it is a direct result of Theresa May's pact with the notoriously anti-abortion DUP.

Wheeling and dealing, ducking and diving - it's what the DUP does best. But sometimes even these canny players get out-manoeuvred. And yesterday - hallelujah! - was one of those days.

Of course, abortion featured nowhere in the DUP's deal to prop up Theresa May. Cash, cash and more cash for Northern Ireland was what the DUP demanded and got, with the possibility of still more to come.

The Conservatives didn't dare push it on 'sensitive' issues like reproductive rights. And so, once more, women's needs were sacrificed on the tainted altar of political expediency.

But then events took a surprising turn.

Ministers were horrified when they saw how many Tory MPs - queasy about the alliance with the DUP - were willing to support a Labour amendment to the Queen's Speech that would allow women from Northern Ireland to get the same NHS-funded terminations in Britain as their counterparts in the rest of the UK. So they quickly cobbled together an emergency package, funded by the Equalities Office, hours before the debate. While the Tories are full of sympathetic largesse, I do hope they will also factor in the extra travel costs that women must pay to cross the Irish Sea and arrange accommodation for themselves.

Of course, this blatantly unfair anomaly has been going on for years, with women having to pay up to £2,000 to get the services they need despite being full UK citizens and taxpayers, and few politicians gave a stuff about it.

Any time the injustice was challenged, ministers spoke in hushed tones about the need to respect devolution and democracy in Northern Ireland. In other words: nothing to do with me, squire.

But now that's all forgotten because the Tories couldn't risk allowing anything to disrupt or derail the Queen's Speech programme of new laws. Hence this cynical act of self-preservation - sorry, I mean this sudden wave of compassion for the terrible plight of Northern Irish women.

Playing gamesmanship with the most private, painful aspects of people's lives - it's not the most attractive way to do business, but the result is a welcome one all the same.

Contrast, however, the situation back at home, where yesterday the Appeal Court in Belfast ruled that it is up to the (non-existent) Stormont Assembly, not the courts, to decide on abortion law in Northern Ireland.

Just as before, those who find themselves in the most distressing circumstances - pregnant as a result of rape, or carrying a baby who cannot live - must pack a bag, if they decide to have a termination, and seek help elsewhere.

Long-time observers know that the right of Northern Irish women to determine the course of their reproductive lives always comes last in the queue. Yet the absence of safe, free, legal abortion provision is one of the most appalling injustices in our society. It affects people across all communities and classes, though the poorest - those who don't have the money to go to England, and are forced to rely on illegally-obtained abortion pills - are the most likely to be prosecuted and put on trial.

Even with the new arrangement offered by the British Government, many disadvantaged women will still be unable to afford the trip.

Yet there is no doubt that people are getting more open-minded about the need for abortion.

According to the latest British social attitudes survey, 70% of people (a record number) agreed that termination should be allowed if the woman decided she did not want to have the child.

And this week the British Medical Association voted in favour of abortion to be decriminalised in the UK. It believes that a woman should be trusted, within the proper regulation of clinical practice, to make her own decision when faced with an unviable or an unplanned pregnancy, and that healthcare professionals should not be at risk of criminal prosecution for doing their jobs. Even here at home, an overwhelming majority - almost three-quarters of people, according to the latest NI Life and Times survey - want to see reform of our harsh, antiquated abortion laws.

It is painfully ironic that in Northern Ireland - a flag-littered place obsessed with nationhood, sovereignty and the right to self-determination - a woman still has so little control over her own sovereign territory: her body.

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