In a judgment published today, we were disappointed to learn that a Supreme Court appeal, challenging the government’s refusal to provide NHS-funded abortion care in England for women resident in Northern Ireland, has narrowly failed. Birthrights joined coalition of reproductive rights charities, Alliance for Choice, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (bpas), the Family Planning Association (FPA), and the Abortion Support Network (ASN), to intervene in the case.
The court was divided 3-2 against the appeal and, in a sensitive and thoughtful judgment which made it clear that the levels of distress and hardship endured by vulnerable women were real and unacceptable, the Court ruled that they couldn’t force the Secretary of State to fund the abortions of Northern Irish women.
The case was brought by a young woman, A, who in 2012 as a pregnant 15-year-old girl travelled with her mother, B, from their home in Northern Ireland to Manchester for an abortion at a cost of £900. Abortion is effectively banned in all but the most severe of circumstances in Northern Ireland. Despite being UK tax-payers, women from Northern Ireland in need of abortion care have had to fund both their travel to England and their treatment.
The Court’s ruling stated that – as Secretary of State – Mr Hunt holds the legal authority to grant women resident in Northern Ireland NHS-funded abortion care in England, but had decided against doing so – not due to financial constraints – but out of “respect” for the democratic decisions of the Northern Ireland Assembly, in which the largest party is the DUP.
The Secretary of State had previously stated that the Government’s policy was that “in general, the NHS should not fund services for residents of Northern Ireland which the Northern Ireland Assembly has deliberately decided not to legislate to provide.”
The judges expressed a profound sympathy for the “plight” of women in Northern Ireland facing an unplanned pregnancy. Lord Wilson, who did not rule in favour of the appeal, stated that the “embarrassment, difficulty, and uncertainty attendant on the urgent need to raise the necessary funds” added significantly to mother and daughter’s “emotional strain.”
In a comment piece to be published later today, our CEO Rebecca Schiller, is expected to highlight that Lady Hale’s dissenting opinion reflected many of the points we made in our intervention. Lady Hale pointed to autonomy and equality as the “fundamental values underlying our legal system.” Underpinning all of that she invoked the profound legal and moral imperative given by the respect for human dignity. “The right of pregnant women to exercise autonomy in relation to treatment and care,” said Lady Hale, “has been hard won but it has been won.”
Rebecca is also expected to ask for assurance from the Prime Minister that women’s rights are not threatened by any future alliance between the Conservatives and the DUP. To that end she has written to the Prime Minister on behalf of Birthrights, in a joint letter which you can read in full here.
In a statement this morning our Chair, Elizabeth Prochaska, added, “the government’s tolerance of this affront to women’s dignity is deeply concerning. For very little cost to the NHS, women in Northern Ireland could be given access to abortion care in Britain. We need immediate clarity from the Prime Minister that any alliance with the hardline DUP will not be allowed to undermine our commitment to women’s equality and reproductive rights.”
A and B are now expected to take their case to the European Court of Human Rights and, if they do, our coalition of reproductive rights charities will be ready to intervene to help protect the vulnerable and ensure their voices are heard.
You can read the press release from the Interveners here.