I was surprised to learn a couple years ago that the United Kingdom’s supposedly National Health Service could be overridden by a local ordinance. Northern Irish residents, despite being British citizens, were being denied NHS coverage for abortions that the NHS provided to any other British citizen, simply because Northern Ireland as a region is still living in the bronze age when it comes to reproductive freedom laws.
I am pleased to see this will no longer be the case. The Guardian reports on all the complexities:
The government has announced a major concession to give Northern Irish women access to terminations on the NHS in Great Britain, in an attempt to head off a damaging Tory rebellion at a vote on the Queen’s speech.
(Par for the course, Conservatives need to have a political knife at their throats to advance on human rights law.)
Dozens of Conservative MPs were understood to have expressed to Tory whips their support for an amendment by the Labour MP Stella Creasy to allow Northern Irish women access to NHS-funded abortions in Great Britain. It was due to be voted on this afternoon.
And Philip Hammond told the Commons that the government would fund abortions in England for women from Northern Ireland.
Women from Northern Ireland are currently charged about £900 for a termination if they travel to have the procedure in mainland Britain, a policy upheld by a supreme court case earlier this month. Northern Ireland has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe and it is almost impossible for a women to have an abortion legally there.
In a letter to MPs outlining the new funding, the education secretary and equalities minister, Justine Greening, hinted she had personal sympathy with the issue. She wrote: “As minister for women and equalities, I share the concerns of many colleagues about the experience of women from Northern Ireland obtaining an abortion through the NHS in England.”
She added: “At present women from Northern Ireland are asked for payment and from now on it is our proposal that this will no longer happen. This is clearly a sensitive issue and one which has direct implications for equality in treatment of women from Northern Ireland.”
Greening said that the Equalities Office would fund the payments for the terminations with additional funding for health services. “This will mean no English health service user is disadvantaged as a result of this change,” she wrote. “Funding for the services will be made available through the government Equalities Office, allowing the Department of Health to commission services in England for those from Northern Ireland.
Regardless of the circumstances, I am happy for Northern Irish residents. However, the coverage will not include travel costs, as I understand the Northern Irish government will still refuse to supply the service. This means the prior problem of poor women being unable to access appropriate care remains.
The Guardian also reported on its live coverage of the government’s concession a fracture in the Tories–seven of them defecting to stand with Labour & co. on the issue of reproductive freedom. This is a serious development considering the last election delivered no majority parties. The Tories have been trying to set for a “confidence & supply” arrangement with the Democratic Unionists, a far-right fundamentalist party, but even those negotiations seem to be deteriorating.
If we’re lucky, this is a sign that Labour might be able to punch above its weight again in the future.