Despite the recent legalization of abortion in Northern Ireland, it remains inaccessible there, forcing patients to take an 8-hour ferry ride to England to receive abortion care. Last year, the British parliament overturned Northern Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws to bring it into line with the rest of the United Kingdom, but the regional government continues to resist making abortion accessible.
The new abortion laws went into effect on March 31, but Northern Ireland’s regional health ministry has not yet begun providing abortion care. Debate over the rollout of abortion services has led to a stalemate between pro-choice Sinn Fein, which leads the regional government, and the anti-choice Democratic Unionist Party. Many suspect this is an effort to indefinitely delay the provision of abortion care supported by the self-described “pro-life” First Minister Arlene Foster and Health Minister Robin Swann.
The closest clinics to Northern Ireland providing publicly funded abortion care are in Manchester and Liverpool in England. Due to the COVID-19 lockdown, hotel rooms and direct flights to those cities are no longer available, so patients’ only option is to take a ferry there and then immediately return home.
“Women are effectively being asked to make an eight-hour journey on a ferry while in the middle of a miscarriage in the middle of a pandemic, without any support,” said Emma Campbell, co-chair of Alliance for Choice, a Northern Ireland reproductive rights organization.
In the rest of the United Kingdom, patients can now receive pills for medication abortions at home after a remote consultation with a doctor, an effort to support abortion access during the coronavirus lockdown. The Democratic Unionist Party voted against implementing that measure in Northern Ireland.
“We are in a worse position than we have ever been in,” said Campbell. “Access is worse than it has been for over 50 years.”
Alliance for Choice has had to revert to its pre-decriminalization strategy for providing patients with abortion care: using a doctor in the Netherlands for prescriptions for medication abortion pills and then purchasing the pills online. However, COVID-19 is restricting the organization’s access to pills while increasing the number of people who have reached out to them for help.
Sources: The New York Times 4/9/20; Reuters 4/7/20