Government directs Stormont to commission Northern Ireland abortion services

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis has used new powers to direct ministers in Belfast to take the steps necessary to roll out abortion services across the region.

Northern Ireland’s once strict abortion laws were liberalised in 2019 following legislation passed by Westminster at a time when devolution at Stormont had collapsed.

However, while individual health trusts are currently offering services on an ad hoc basis, the Department of Health has yet to centrally commission the services due to an ongoing impasse within the devolved administration.

At the heart of this matter are the women and girls in Northern Ireland, who have been, and continue to be, denied the same reproductive rights as women in the rest of the UK

The limitations on service provision saw many women continuing to travel to England to access abortions during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Ulster Unionist Health Minister Robin Swann has maintained he cannot centrally commission services without the approval of the wider five-party coalition Executive, insisting it is his legal responsibility to refer controversial or significant decisions to the other ministers.

However, for such a proposal to secure Executive approval, or even get on the agenda for a ministerial discussion, the two main parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein, must both agree to it.

The anti-abortion DUP has to date blocked consideration of the commissioning issue at the Executive.

In March, the Government intervened to hand Mr Lewis new powers to direct the region’s Department of Health to commission the services.

On Thursday, he formally took that step, directing action from the Department of Health, Mr Swann, the Health and Social Care Board, First Minister Paul Givan and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill.

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