Belfast Telegraph

Opinions split over Republic extending abortion services to Northern Ireland

By Allan Preston

The Irish government has received a mixed response after claims it will offer abortion services to women in Northern Ireland.

Irish Health Minister Simon Harris made the remarks during the leaders' debate at the west Belfast festival on Tuesday.

It remains unclear if this represents an intention or a firm commitment from the Irish government.

"While I respect the issue of abortion laws in Northern Ireland is a matter for public representatives in Northern Ireland, I really hope this is addressed in the near future," he said.

"In the meantime, I intend to ensure women from Northern Ireland can access such services in the Republic, just like they can access other health services here."

Sinn Fein and human rights group Amnesty International welcomed the comments.

However, anti-abortion group Precious Life accused Mr Harris of an "outrageous attack" on Northern Ireland's unborn babies and the democratic process.

The DUP said: "Services available within the Republic of Ireland and how these are paid for are a matter for the Irish Government.

"The DUP is a pro-life party which upholds the value and worth of both mothers and unborn children."

The UUP said abortion remained a matter of individual conscience.

The SDLP and Alliance Party were asked for comment - however they did not respond last night.

Mr Harris said 919 women from Northern Ireland travelled to England and Wales last year to access abortion services.

Official figures from the UK government said 833 made the journey in 2015.

Abortion remains illegal in Northern Ireland except in cases where there is a serious threat to the mother's physical or mental health.

The debate in Northern Ireland has intensified since May when the Republic voted to relax its abortion laws.

Mr Harris said he intends to introduce new legislation after the summer recess.

The journey to Dublin will be substantially cheaper for women in Northern Ireland hoping to access the new services, but many feel this is still unacceptable.

Grainne Teggart is campaigns manager for Amnesty International in Northern Ireland.

"This will be a welcome form of remedy for some but it is no substitute for free, safe and legal services at home," she said.

"We call on Theresa May's government to bring an end to the harm being caused by our near-total ban on abortion by decriminalising abortion and putting a human rights compliant framework for access in place.

"It is hypocritical, degrading and insulting to women to force them to travel for healthcare. We are not second-class citizens, we will not accept this inequity."

The Prime Minister has previously resisted calls to reform Northern Ireland's abortion laws, stating any change must be agreed by a devolved Assembly.

Bernadette Smyth, director of the anti-abortion group Precious Life, slammed Mr Harris for an "outrageous attack on Northern Ireland's unborn babies and the democratic process".

"Simon Harris' blatant disregard for the right to life does not stop at the border, as he now wants to extend his government's abortion plans and kill unborn children from the north," she said.

"Once again we have a pro-abortion politician attacking Northern Ireland's democratic process.

"It's totally outrageous and it demonstrates a shocking level of utter contempt for democracy."

Sinn Fein said: "There is an overwhelming desire, within the wider public and within the medical profession, to see this addressed in a compassionate and caring manner to ensure that women's access to healthcare is harmonised across the island."

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