Women in Northern Ireland could potentially have free abortions in other parts of the UK at NHS discretion, it has emerged.
Previously it was thought that this would not be allowed because abortion is illegal in Northern Ireland — a position set out in a Commons statement by ex-NIO Minister Paul Goggins in 2009.
But in a new twist to the raging abortion debate in Northern Ireland, an apparent change of policy has emerged in an answer to a parliamentary question by Lord Laird this week.
The Department of Health’s Lord Howell told the UUP peer that “it is a matter for each Primary Care Trust (PCT) to consider, in exercising this duty in relation to abortion services, whether treatment for women resident in Northern Ireland seeking an abortion in their area should be provided.”
Audrey Simpson of the Family Planning Association — which is campaigning for a clarification of abortion law here — said its lawyers are studying the statement, adding: “A test case is a possibility but initially we are seeing what can be achieved by negotiations with the Primary Care Trusts.”
An estimated 40 women a week travel to England for abortions at private clinics, which charge up to around £1,800 for the most expensive medical procedure.
In England most abortions are carried out at private clinics, but local PCTs pick up the tab for NHS patients. In Scotland most abortions are carried out at NHS facilities.
Ms Simpson believes that, once the new ruling is examined, women may then travel to Scotland to avoid private clinics altogether. She said: “Scotland would be a logical place to go because there are cheaper flights and it is possible to travel by ferry.”
In his answer Lord Howe stressed that “there is no absolute right for a patient to receive a particular treatment” and also said “the department has not issued any guidelines on the issue”.
This means a test case may be necessary to clarify the situation. It is not clear whether a PCT in Great Britain could send a bill to the health service here for abortions carried out on Northern Ireland women that would be illegal if carried out here.
A lawyer studying the situation said: “My understanding is that there would be no billing to Northern Ireland; it isn’t mentioned and there would not be billing for other treatments.
“Following on from this parliamentary answer and the clear contrast with Paul Goggins earlier statement, it may be possible to go to the High Court and get a ruling.”
Abortion is only allowed in Northern Ireland when continuing the pregnancy is judged likely to cause serious long-term damage to a pregnant woman’s physical or mental health. At present the Department of Health is facing a legal challenge to produce clearer guidelines. Around 40 abortions a year take place in Northern Ireland. A Marie Stopes clinic has opened in Belfast and will provide abortions in the first nine weeks of pregnancy using existing law. The clinic is not subject to regulation or inspection.