Northern Ireland's Women Can't Access Free Abortions in England, Supreme Court Rules

Northern Ireland abortion women
Pro-choice campaigners take part in a demonstration through Belfast city center on April 30, 2016. The Supreme Court in London ruled on June 14 that Northern Irish women do not have a right to free abortion services under the NHS. Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images

The U.K. Supreme Court has denied Northern Ireland’s women the right to access free abortions under Britain's publicly owned health care system (National Health Service, or NHS) in England with a majority of three to two.

The mother and daughter who brought the case spent £900 ($1,150) in 2012 for the 15-year-old girl to have an abortion in a private clinic in England, as their native Northern Ireland allows abortion only in cases of a severe risk to the mother’s physical or mental health.

The women had appealed to Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt to allow Northern Irish residents to access services provided by the state under the NHS in England, and argued it was unlawful not to do so.

According to a 2014 London High Court ruling, it is the minister's prerogative to ensure the health services for the use of people in England, rather than residents of Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom but has a series of devolutionary powers.

The Supreme Court upheld the 2014 ruling, although Judge Lord Wilson expressed sympathy with the women in delivering the verdict, adding that the five judges, four men and one woman, had been “sharply divided” on the case, as the BBC reported.

Lord Wilson acknowledged the law puts women with unwanted pregnancies in Northern Ireland in a "deeply unenviable position" in which they face "embarrassment, difficulty, and uncertainty" as they try to raise the funds to pay for an abortion in England.

The mother and daughter, who remain anonymous for legal reasons, intend to take their case to the European Court for Human Rights. "We have instructed our legal team to file an application with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, to protect the human rights of the many other women who make the lonely journey to England every week because they are denied access to basic healthcare services in their own country,” they said in a statement.

Data published by the British Health Ministry on Tuesday showed that, on average, at least two women a day traveled from Northern Ireland to England to access abortion services in 2016. The annual figure of 724 women shows a decrease from the 833 in 2015, but activists are concerned that the decrease is only due to a more widespread use of abortion pills ordered online, as The Guardian reported.

In 2016, a 21-year-old Northern Irish woman received a three-month sentence suspended for two years for procuring a miscarriage with abortion pills. She was 19 years old when she got pregnant and could not afford to travel to England to terminate her pregnancy. Her roommates contacted the police once they found out she took the pills. Her case sparked a wave of protests in the country demanding the right to safe and legal abortion.

Northern Irish abortion laws are stricter than in the rest of the U.K. and have come under increased public scrutiny after the recent election. The Northern Irish and socially conservative Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which opposes same-sex unions and abortions, has entered talks with Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative Party to form a government since the election left the ruling party short of a ruling majority.

Activists are concerned that a coalition government will stall civil rights progress in Northern Ireland. “The DUP has consistently blocked any attempts to allow abortion even in limited circumstances,” the London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign told Newsweek, commenting on the talks. “We urge Theresa May to think carefully before aligning herself with a party intent on undermining the human rights of Northern Irish women.”