Britain’s secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis, is going over the heads of deadlocked local politicians to order the rollout of state-funded abortion services long available in the rest of the U.K.
Lewis announced Thursday he is invoking his powers to compel Northern Ireland’s Department of Health to start providing abortions for women up to 24 weeks pregnant in line with United Nations’ recommendations accepted by Britain.
The Northern Ireland Executive’s failure to comply with British legislation on the matter since 2020 means hundreds of its citizens have continued to travel annually for abortions to England, where the practice was legalized in 1967, or to the Republic of Ireland, where a constitutional referendum legalizing abortion was passed in 2018.
While some Northern Irish hospitals since 2020 have been providing abortion-inducing pills to women up to 10 weeks’ pregnant, no surgical abortions have begun. One hospital trust covering the predominantly Catholic west of Northern Ireland stopped all abortion services last year and instead advises women on its website to seek “free abortion care in England.”
“I am determined to ensure that women and girls in Northern Ireland can access abortion services in the same way as those living in the rest of the United Kingdom,” Lewis told the House of Commons in a written statement.
He said the executive — the cross-community government of British unionists and Irish nationalists created under the terms of Northern Ireland’s Good Friday peace accord — had repeatedly missed deadlines to comply with British law.
“This is entirely unacceptable,” he said, announcing new regulations that override the Executive’s decision-making power on the issue. “If the Department of Health does not commission and fund abortion services as directed, I will intervene further.”
Lewis’ intervention drew immediate condemnation from the Democratic Unionists, the party that is blocking a new legislature and executive at Stormont until Britain meets its demand for the post-Brexit trade protocol to be scrapped. The protocol requires EU checks on British goods entering Northern Ireland.
While the DUP argues that Northern Ireland should have the same laws as the rest of the U.K. when it comes to trade, it takes the polar opposite view on abortion — and may legally challenge Lewis’ office and the Department of Health to stop new abortion services.
Democratic Unionist MP Carla Lockhart, who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group at Westminster, said Lewis was seeking to “make Northern Ireland one of the most dangerous places in Europe to be a child in the womb, especially if that little baby has a disability.”
“If and when Stormont returns, the DUP and those elected representatives who cherish life will work night and day to bring back life-affirming laws,” she said.
While the DUP has a strong Christian evangelical base that rejects abortion in virtually all circumstances, most of the other parties in Northern Ireland’s crumbling coalition treat advocacy of abortion rights as a potential vote-loser, too.
Ahead of this month’s Northern Ireland Assembly elections, none of the five coalition parties explicitly wrote “abortion” in their manifestos. The opposition Greens, who made abortion rights a point of pride in their platform, lost both of their assembly seats.
One of the assembly’s final preelection acts – passage of a Green-sponsored bill outlawing the harassment of women outside family planning clinics – has been referred by Northern Ireland’s attorney general to the U.K. Supreme Court as potentially unlawful.
The Ulster Unionists, the DUP’s moderate rival for Protestant votes, holds the health portfolio at Stormont, where the DUP’s blockade of resumed power-sharing means the eight caretaker ministers still in office can’t take new policy decisions. Regardless, even when the executive was working, Health Minister Robin Swann repeatedly rebuffed pressure to fund and staff abortion services in local NHS hospitals, citing the need for DUP approval.
The Irish republicans of Sinn Féin called in their manifesto for “the British Tory government” to deliver “modern reproductive health care.”
Their moderate Catholic rival for Irish nationalist votes, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, avoided any written mention of abortion. On the campaign trail, one SDLP candidate suggested anti-abortion activists should “get a life” – and soon apologized.
Pro-choice doctors in Northern Ireland’s hospitals welcomed Lewis’ move. They expressed hope it would finally allow them to rectify the 2018 finding by the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women that the British government permits “grave and systematic violations of rights” against pregnant women in Northern Ireland.
“We unfortunately still have inadequate and unbalanced health care in Northern Ireland for women,” said Dr. Laura McLaughlin, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Ulster Hospital east of Belfast. She is co-chair of the Doctors for Choice lobbying group.
McLaughlin said Stormont’s inaction since 2020 meant doctors who currently provide induced abortions for women up to 10 weeks pregnant were doing this without proper budgets or dedicated staff. “There is a constant threat we will lose the service,” she said.