The Scottish Government has confirmed access to free abortions to women from Northern Ireland who are now entitled to free abortions through the Scottish and Welsh National Health Service (NHS), with the English NHS to follow in the near future.
The 1967 Abortion Act enabled legal abortions throughout the United Kingdom. However, it was not adopted by Northern Ireland, where abortions can only take place in extreme circumstances where the health of the women is deemed to be at serious risk. Otherwise, they are a criminal offence.
These laws have thus led many women to travel to Britain where they previously had to pay for abortions.
The differences in abortion laws in Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom are attributed to the religious status of the region. An anti-abortion group, Precious Life, has said that allowing women from Northern Ireland to access NHS terminations will “run roughshod over the law and the democratic process”.
Thea Mawhinney, a second year Biomedical Sciences student from Northern Ireland at the University of Edinburgh knows women who have had to make the journey to Britain to have an abortion. Thea told The Student, “abortions should be legal in Northern Ireland because every Northern Irish girl should have a choice and not feel trapped”.
She referred to the laws as “backward” and “influenced by religious views”, saying that women “shouldn’t even have to travel to Scotland [as abortion is] traumatic enough.”
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has been exploring the issue since last year. When addressing Holyrood, she stated that no woman “should ever be stigmatised” for having an abortion, and emphasised the need for safe and legal procedures for terminating pregnancies.
Public Health Minister for the Scottish Government Aileen Campbell said, “I am proud this government is working hard to ensure women are always able to access clinically safe services”.
Diarmuid O’Rourke, a second year Maths and Biology student from Northern Ireland at the University told The Student, “the fact that [abortions] are still illegal in Northern Ireland is ridiculous, it’s partly due to old religious beliefs and the Democratic Unionist Party’s opposition to any changes.
“[Even when a woman’s health is at serious risk,] they’re extremely hard to get, it literally has to be a life or death situation. I think it’s brilliant that this is becoming available because there are so many people who are in need of it and it means they aren’t needing to pay the extortionate fees to go private.”
Abortions are also illegal in most circumstances in the Republic of Ireland. Tens of thousands of people marched for change in these laws in Dublin at the end of September this year.
Image: Ivan Lai