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Supreme Court rejects free NHS abortions for Northern Ireland women in England appeal

The challenge was narrowly defeated in Supreme Court.
The challenge was narrowly defeated in Supreme Court.

The UK's highest court has narrowly rejected an appeal by a mother and daughter in their legal battle for women from Northern Ireland to receive free abortions on the NHS in England.

Supreme Court justices announced their three to two majority decision in London on Wednesday.

The 20-year-old woman at the centre of the appeal was 15 in October 2012 when she and her mother travelled from Northern Ireland to Manchester and was told she had to pay hundreds of pounds for a private termination because she was excluded from free abortion services.

They originally lost their action in the High Court in London in May 2014 when a judge ruled that the exclusion was lawful.

Read more: Northern Ireland girls as young as 13 seeking abortions in England

The judge concluded that the Health Secretary was entitled to adopt a residence-based system so that women resident in Northern Ireland are not entitled to benefit from NHS abortion services in England, even though they are UK citizens.

The mother and daughter, who cannot be named for legal reasons, suffered a further defeat at the Court of Appeal in 2015.

The Supreme Court's deputy president Lady Hale and Lord Kerr said they would have allowed the challenge against that earlier decision.

A coalition of reproductive healthcare providers intervened in the case: Alliance for Choice, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (bpas), Birthrights, the Family Planning Association (FPA), and the Abortion Support Network (ASN).

Ruling means women and girls from Northern Ireland will continue to be treated as second class citizens. Amnesty International


Commenting on the verdict, Ann Furedi, bpas chief executive said: "We are of course disappointed with the overall verdict of the Supreme Court.

"However, this ruling confirms it is in Jeremy Hunt’s power to grant NHS-funded abortion care to women resident in Northern Ireland and  his refusal to do so is political. It is not based on cost. ‎

“NHS-funded abortion care may not have been declared a legal right for Northern Irish women today, but it is  morally right to provide it. 724 women travelled from Northern Ireland to England for abortion care in 2016. They deserve the same care and compassion as all other UK citizens."

Grainne Teggart, campaign manager for Amnesty International in Northern Ireland, added: "This is a further blow to women from Northern Ireland, who already face some of the harshest abortion laws in Europe. This ruling means that women and girls from Northern Ireland will continue to be treated as second class citizens. As ever, it is the most marginalised women who will be worst affected.

“It is vital that changes to abortion laws in Northern Ireland go ahead without delay so that women who need an abortion can have one there rather than having to travel to England.”

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