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UK Government steps in to take over abortion services in Northern Ireland


T

he Government is to step in and commission full abortion services in Northern Ireland amid a long-standing political stand-off between local politicians on the issue.

Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Chris Heaton-Harris said on Monday he will ensure that services are now commissioned in the region.

Abortion legislation in Northern Ireland was liberalised in 2019 following laws passed by Westminster at a time when the powersharing government at Stormont had collapsed.

While individual health trusts have offered limited services on an ad-hoc basis, Northern Ireland’s Department of Health never centrally commissioned the rollout of full services due to a political impasse at Stormont.

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The DUP, which is opposed to abortion, had refused to agree to the issue being tabled on the agenda of the ministerial executive.

In May, the Government intervened and laid regulations at Parliament that removed the need for the Department of Health to seek the approval of the wider executive to commission the services.

It also gave the Secretary of State the power to step in and commission the services himself if the devolved health minister failed to do so.

With Health Minister Robin Swann having not acted to commission services, Mr Heaton-Harris has now formally taken over the responsibility.

He said he is under a statutory obligation to ensure that safe abortion services are available.

In the coming weeks, Mr Heaton-Harris said he will meet chief executives of health and social care trusts to ensure the services can be provided.

In a statement, the Government said it had been forced to act as Stormont’s Department of Health has not ensured the availability of services and “have shown no indications that they will act to provide them”.

“The UK Government has been clear that the Government would commission abortion services if the Department of Health did not act to provide them,” Mr Heaton-Harris said.

“Three years on from the decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland, we will be ensuring the commissioning of abortion services by the UK Government.

“It is unfortunate that we have been forced to commission these services, in what should be a matter for the Department of Health to implement.

“However, the Government has been left with no other option, as women and girls of Northern Ireland have been without safe and high quality services, with many having to travel to the rest of the UK to access healthcare to which they are legally entitled. That is unacceptable.

“I will be meeting the chief executives of Health and Social Care Trusts in Northern Ireland in the coming weeks to ensure these services can be provided.

“Ultimately, it remains the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Executive to fund abortion services in Northern Ireland.

“The UK Government will ensure that appropriate funding is available to enable healthcare professionals to take the necessary steps to ensure that essential training and recruitment of staff can progress, and services can be implemented.”

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