After laws permitting elective abortion in Northern Ireland came into force last week, the region's deputy First Minister is urging that women there be allowed to perform medical abortions at home.
Home administration of medical abortions has been permitted in Scotland and Wales for some time, and it was approved in England March 30.
Michelle O'Neill, deputy First Minister and vice president of Sinn Féin, said April 6 that “I support telemedicine. What we’re talking about is compassionate healthcare, modern healthcare for women.”
Sinn Féin is an Irish nationalist party that has historically enjoyed significant Catholic support. It supported the liberalization of abortion laws in Northern Ireland imposed by the British parliament, and its party members endorsed the repeal of the Republic of Ireland's Eighth Amendment, which protected unborn children.
O'Neill continued: “What we’re talking about is responding to women’s need at the time of global crisis – women shouldn’t be left out in terms of supports that are put in place. And so the regulations that have went through Westminster, the legislation that’s went through, needs to be implemented here.”
She said that “the health minister has an obligation to put in place those regulations and to put in place the mechanisms in order to make sure those supports are there for women as has been legislated for.”
In contrast, First Minister Arlene Foster, who is also leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, stated that “The health minister will bring papers forward and we will have discussions, but I don't think it's any secret that I don't believe abortion on demand should be available in Northern Ireland.”
“I think it’s a very retrograde step for our society here in Northern Ireland. Instead of supporting people who find themselves in crisis pregnancies, we’re not even having any discussion around that and how we can support people in those circumstances, how we can provide perinatal care,” Foster added.
The First Minister and deputy First Minister are jointly the heads of government in Northern Ireland, forming a diarchy.
The DUP have emerged as a leading pro-life party in Northern Ireland. However, the unionist party has had links to the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, an ecclesial community particularly hostile to the Catholic Church.
Francie Brolly, a former Sinn Féin politician who resigned the party in 2018 for its abortion support, has said he anticipates that Catholics in Northern Ireland will “go against their religious beliefs to vote for Sinn Fein for various other reasons... fundamentally to keep the [Democratic Unionist Party] down.”
Sinn Féin's abortion policy has allowed for some political realignments among Catholics in Ireland.
Michael Kelly, editor of The Irish Catholic, told CNA in 2018 that pro-life voters “have been left unrepresented by the mainstream political establishment” and that “Ireland is crying out for a new political movement.”
Kelly noted that “many pro-life voters remain reluctant voters for their traditional political party,” but that “there is some evidence that this is changing and that people are willing to set aside old tribal loyalties.”
Peadar Tóibín, a deputy to the Republic of Ireland's Dáil, was twice suspended from Sinn Féin for breaking with the party's platform on legalized abortion. He resigned the party in 2018, and launched Aontú as a pro-life, nationalist party last year.
Aontú contested seven of the 18 Northern Ireland seats in last year's UK general election, but won none. Its members stood for 26 constituencies in the 2020 Irish general election, and Tóibín was the sole member to win a seat.
The Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2020, which allows elective abortions up to 12 weeks of pregnancy; abortions up to 24 weeks in cases of risk to the mother's physical or mental health; and abortion without time limit in cases of severe fetal impairment or fetal fetal abnormality.
Abortions may be performed at General Practitioners premises, and Health and Social Care clinics and hospitals, while the region's Health Minister will be able to approve further locations for medical abortions.
The Health Minister, Robin Swann, is a member of the Ulster Unionist Party, but according to the Press Association, a news agency in the UK and Ireland, approval of at-home medical abortions “will require the agreement” of the Northern Ireland Executive.
At-home medical abortions were discussed by the power-sharing executive April 6. “Stormont sources said it had led to a row between the parties,” the BBC reported.
Previously, abortion was legally permitted in Northern Ireland only if the mother's life was at risk or if there was risk of long term or permanent, serious damage to her mental or physical health.
The regulations allowing elective abortion in Northern Ireland came into force March 31, but they have not yet been implemented by the region's Department of Health.
Northern Irish women had been able to procure free National Health Service abortions in England, Scotland, and Wales since November 2017. They are allowed to travel to the rest of the UK to procure abortions during the coronavirus outbreak.
Though in England, Wales, and Scotland, two medical professionals must certify in all cases that there were lawful grounds for abortion, in Northern Ireland only one medical professional is needed for certification in elective abortions or in cases of immediate necessity where there is a risk to the life of the mother.
The lower threshold in Northern Ireland was adopted at least in part because “it is likely that there will be a more significant number of people raising conscientious objections than in other parts of the UK.”
Consientious objection is allowed for direct participation in abortion, but not for ancillary, administrative, or managerial tasks associated with the procedure, because that “would have consequences on a practical level and would therefore undermine the effective provision of abortion services in Northern Ireland.”
Buffer zones have not been set up around locations where abortions are procured, barring protest in the locations' immediate vicinity. The government has decided to wait and see what the situation will be, keeping the matter under review so it can “respond to any challenges as needed at the time.”
The new framework was adopted to implement Westminster's Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019, which was passed while the Northern Ireland Assembly was suspended, though the legislature resumed meeting in January.
Northern Ireland rejected the Abortion Act 1967, which legalized abortion in England, Wales, and Scotland; and bills to legalize abortion in cases of fatal fetal abnormality, rape, or incest failed in the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2016.
John Hayes, the Conservative MP for South Holland and The Deepings, said ahead of the regulations' introduction that the process was “overriding devolution.”
“It seems likely this will be interpreted as the UK Government imposing its will on a reluctant part of the Kingdom which is doubtless disdainfully regarded by Whitehall’s liberal elite as antediluvian,” he wrote earlier this month.
The amendment to the NI EF Act obliging the government to provide for legal abortion in Northern Ireland was introduced by Stella Creasy, a Labour MP who represents a London constituency.
In October 2019, the High Court in Belfast had ruled that the region's ban on the abortion of unborn children with fatal abnormalities violated the UK's human rights commitments.