Supreme Court to hear challenge to ban on NHS abortions for Northern Irish women

supreme court gallery

Public gallery, Supreme Court sketch by Isobel Williams (

The Supreme Court will today consider the position of hundreds of pregnant women forced to travel from Northern Ireland to England every year to pay hundreds of pounds for an NHS termination.  Currently, lawful abortions are only available in rare, highly exceptional circumstances in Northern Ireland.

It has been reported that last year just 16 abortions were carried out in Northern Ireland and around 1,000 women travel to Britain each year for terminations. The legal challenge was brought by a teenager and her mother known as ‘A’ and ‘B’.

In 2012, when A was 15 year old, she was pregnant and did not wish to continue the pregnancy. They were informed at a local hospital that the only way to have a termination would be to travel to England and pay privately. The operation cost £600 on top of travel costs to Manchester of £300.  They received financial support from a charity, Abortion Support Network, of £400 without which they could not have afforded the treatment.

A and B argued in the High Court and Court of Appeal that the cost of the treatment should have been free for them as UK citizens. The Court of Appeal rejected their appeal in July 2015 but the Supreme Court granted them permission to appeal.

A coalition of reproductive rights groups is arguing that not allowing NHS-funded abortions represents unlawful discrimination contrary to Article 14 and Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Six groups including the British Humanist Association, the Family Planning Association, and the British Pregnancy Advice Service have been given permission to intervene in the case.

‘Reproductive rights and health services are being denied to women in Northern Ireland as a result of the country’s anachronistic abortion laws and because Northern Irish women are refused access to NHS abortions in the rest of the UK,’ commented BHA’s director of public affairs and policy Pavan Dhaliwal. ‘That a woman’s access to such basic health services should depend on an accident of geography is astonishing and continues to put women’s lives at risk.’

‘Our government’s stance in refusing women from Northern Ireland a safe and legal abortion on the NHS is shameful and we believe it is a breach of human rights laws. The Supreme Court judges have an opportunity to rectify a situation which currently causes undue distress to hundreds of women and leads many more with no choice but to buy illegal abortion pills online.’
Pavan Dhaliwal

‘For women in Northern Ireland who are pregnant and seek a termination, the status quo is almost unbearable,’ commented Angela Jackman, a partner at law firm Simpson Millar representing A & B. ‘I believe the legal arguments of the Secretary of State are perverse and contrary to its international obligations. Many women face the choice between an unlawful termination using dangerous and illegal pills, with the prospect of prosecution to follow, or a costly journey to England where they must pay privately for an abortion. For many women, those costs are prohibitive.’

Author: Jon Robins

Jon is editor of the Justice Gap. He is a freelance journalist. Jon’s books include The First Miscarriage of Justice (Waterside Press, 2014), The Justice Gap (LAG, 2009) and People Power (Daily Telegraph/LawPack, 2008). Jon is a journalism lecturer at Winchester University and a visiting senior fellow in access to justice at the University of Lincoln. He is twice winner of the Bar Council’s journalism award (2015 and 2005) and is shortlisted for this year’s Criminal Justice Alliance’s journalism award

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