A Northern Ireland health trust has paused abortion service referrals due to a shortage of nurses and medical support.
The Western Trust said yesterday that referrals would no longer be accepted until further options can be explored to provide the service, adding they were working to minimise any disruption.
Abortion became legal in Northern Ireland in October 2019.
Terminations are permitted up to 12 weeks. Beyond this stage, they are permitted only under very strict criteria.
Two other health trusts — the South Eastern and the Northern — have previously suspended services.
Sinn Fein MLA Emma Sheerin said: “It’s deeply concerning that the Western Trust will become the third health trust over the last year to suspend abortion services.
“Clinicians have been forced to make difficult decisions without support during what has already been a tough year for our health service.”
Ms Sheerin said it was “totally unacceptable” and called on Health Minister Robin Swann “to implement modern and compassionate healthcare services for women”.
Alliance MLA Paula Bradshaw said the decision to pause referrals justified the intervention of the Secretary of State Brandon Lewis to ensure the law around abortion is upheld and services continue to be provided.
“It is unacceptable one year after regulations took effect, services are, if anything, being cut back,” she said.
“We cannot continue with a stop-start provision of healthcare to women. This is exactly why the Secretary of State has to intervene to ensure the statutory duty in law is upheld to implement the regulations as they stand, and ensure universal access to healthcare and support across Northern Ireland.”
A spokesperson for the Western Trust said: “The Trust requires additional nursing and medical support in order to deliver this service and are actively exploring all options in respect of this.
“The Trust apologises for any concern this may cause and can assure the public that we are continuing to work towards minimising any disruption this will cause in the interim period.”
Labour MP Stella Creasy, who in 2019 led a successful push in the Commons to extend abortion services to Northern Ireland, said the issue shows it is “critical” the Secretary of State intervenes in Northern Ireland.
Mr Swann has already made it clear that he will not commission the services without the approval of the Executive.
The Northern Ireland Office told UTV: “The interim Early Medical Abortion service, which has been in place since 2020 in the place of centrally commissioned services, has proved fragile and there has already been service disruption in two trusts due to resourcing issues.
“The Northern Ireland Office’s strong preference remains for the Northern Ireland Department of Health and the Northern Ireland Executive to take responsibility for commissioning these services and it is a matter of regret that they haven’t yet done so and there is a need to take these steps to deliver on our shared moral and legal obligations.”