Belfast Telegraph

Campaigners demand Northern Ireland equality after High Court rules women cannot get free abortion in England

By Claire McNeilly

Campaigners have called for equality over abortion, saying Northern Ireland women should be able to get NHS-funded care at home.

Their comments come after the High Court ruled yesterday that women from here were not legally entitled to free NHS abortions in England.

It follows a case that was brought by a 15-year-old girl (claimant A) and her mother (claimant B), who cannot be identified for legal reasons.

After becoming pregnant, the teenager travelled to England for a private termination in October 2012 because Northern Ireland's strict abortion law meant it was impossible to have the procedure here.

Mr Justice King said the differences in the legal position had "not surprisingly led to a steady stream" of pregnant women from Northern Ireland to England to access abortion services not available to them at home. But he ruled that Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt's duty to promote a comprehensive health service in England "is a duty in relation to the physical and mental health of the people of England", and that duty did not extend "to persons who are ordinarily resident in Northern Ireland".

The judge said that devolutionary powers have to be taken into consideration.

Representing the girl and her mother, solicitor Angela Jackman, partner at Maxwell Gillott, said it was "very disappointing" that the court had not found in favour of her clients.

"This is an important issue for thousands of women in Northern Ireland, and there have been recent calls in Parliament for changes in the law," she said.

"Why should women from Northern Ireland have to pay for this health service in England despite being UK citizens?

"And what are women in Northern Ireland who need terminations supposed to do if they cannot afford to pay privately for the service in England?"

Ms Jackman said she was now seeking permission to take the matter to the Court of Appeal.

"We take the view that the Secretary of State's policy is unreasonable and that it simply fails to take into account the large numbers of women who travel from Northern Ireland each year to England to receive abortion services, and we say that that's a very significant factor that has not been given due consideration," she said.

Dawn Purvis , director of Marie Stopes Northern Ireland, said that local women should be able to get NHS-funded abortion care at home.

"Northern Ireland women are UK citizens, which means they should be able to access the same NHS services as their counterparts in other parts of the UK," she told the Belfast Telegraph.

"The added layer of stress involved in finding the money to travel and pay for treatment can be crippling."

Liam Gibson, from the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, welcomed the ruling.

Meanwhile, a motion was passed unanimously by Queen's University Students' Union to give students more information on abortion legislation.

Around 62 council members attended the meeting on Wednesday to deal with a wide range of business, including a proposed controversial ban on the sale of poppies, which was defeated.

The motion which was passed without debate also pointed out that: "Female GB students are unaware that signing up with a GP in Northern Ireland removes their right to automatic free NHS services back in GB."

BACKGROUND

The laws covering abortion in Northern Ireland are the 1861 Offences Against The Person Act and the Criminal Justice Act from 1945. It is a criminal offence, which carries a life sentence. The only exceptions are to save a woman's life or if there is a risk of permanent and serious damage to her mental or physical health. The Department of Health is reviewing the guidelines on abortion, which were recently put out to consultation. The Justice Minister said last December that he was going to consult on changing laws to allow women carrying babies with fatal foetal abnormalities to have a termination.

 

15 and pregnant: ‘harrowing’ ordeal of girl at heart of case

The young Northern Ireland woman behind this case hasn’t sought publicity for her story.

But yesterday’s High Court ruling will once again reignite the debate over whether abortion should be readily available to women here on the NHS, just as it is in other parts of the UK.

Referred to as claimant A, the girl, and her mother, claimant B, appeared at the High Court in England yesterday morning.

There it emerged that in October 2012, when the girl was just 15, she travelled to Manchester to have her pregnancy terminated at the Marie Stopes clinic.

Outlining their case, the girl's mother said that the operation cost £600, while the travel amounted to around £300, half of which was provided by the Abortion Network, a Northern Ireland voluntary organisation.

The mother argued that these costs had placed additional stress on the family and on the child and she said that if she had been living elsewhere in the UK she could have easily gone to a hospital within the NHS system and have had a free abortion.

The court also got a glimpse of what the family had gone through, as the mother of the girl, now aged 17, described the “harrowing” experience.

She spoke of the stress of not knowing whether it was going to be possible for her daughter to have the procedure, and whether or not they were going to be able to raise the funds.

The mother told the court that had they known from the outset that they would be able to travel to Britain and that her daughter could have had the procedure free on the NHS, that would have significantly reduced the stress and trauma that her daughter and the rest of the family had experienced.

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